In the wake of a student being found with a loaded handgun on school property but outside the building last spring officials at Oak Park and River Forest High School are upgrading their campus security practices this year. The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas in May in which a shooter killed 19 students and two teachers and the mass shooting in Highland Park on the July 4 have only intensified concerns about hardening the school’s security practices.
“We want to make sure our house is protected,” said OPRF’s new Director of Campus Safety Cherylynn Jones-McLeod at an Aug. 11 Committee of the Whole Meeting of the OPRF District 200 Board of Education.
Jones-McLeod took on her new position July 1. She previously was the Assistant Director of Campus Safety at OPRF until leaving last year for a short time to take a job at the Heartland Alliance.
In the wake of the school shooting in Texas two school board members were open to revisiting the decision made in 2020 to eliminate the position of school resource officer, an Oak Park police officer, stationed at the school during the school day.
In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the OPRF school board voted 6 to 1 not to renew an intergovernmental agreement with the Village of Oak Park that had been in place since 1999 and to eliminate the school resource officer due to concerns about discriminatory policing and disproportionate impacts on Black students.
But now board members Ralph Martire and Fred Arkin are willing to reconsider the issue.
“Maybe we could find a more positive way to do it and create a model that works,” Martire said. “And that’s a maybe but I’m willing to have that discussion.”
Board member Kebreab Henry was skeptical that having one police officer in the building would make the school any safer, especially in a mass shooting situation.
“How is one person going to make it safer,” Henry asked. “One officer is not going to solve this problem.”
In 2020 before the school board voted to eliminate the school resource officer position then superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams recommended against eliminating the position but instead called for a one-year moratorium.
Now OPRF and the Village of Oak Park are working on creating a new intergovernmental agreement to standardize communication procedures and protocols for dealing with dangerous situations, but apparently not reestablishing a school resource officer. The new intergovernmental agreement will likely be voted on in September.
At the Aug. 11 meeting Jones-McLeod outlined steps the school has already taken to increase security this year. Students are now required to wear their student ID’s around their necks throughout the school day.
OPRF has 34 safety officers and two supervisors in addition to McLeod working on campus safety. There are 16 day shift officers, nine afternoon officers and nine part time officers who work during lunch and after school officers. Jones-McLeod said she has taken steps to increase security inside the building such as reassigning more experienced security officers to the most critical parts of the building including entrances and the cafeteria during times of high student use of those locations. Security officers are present at the school’s three entry doors in the morning checking student ID’s as they enter the school. A bathroom log is now being used to monitor bathroom use. The school has been using an outside security firm to provide coverage on weekends and holidays.
Principal Lynda Parker emphasized the importance of building relationships with students.
“What we know for sure is that in instances of school shootings there’s always staff in school who may have known that person, who knew something or saw something that was off and either sounded alarms, or didn’t sound enough alarms, but it was recognized through relationships from their front line people which is everyone working with students in the building,” Parker said.
The school is also changing how it communicates to the school community about violent or dangerous incidents. Previously it was the school’s policy to communicate as much information as quickly as possible. But school officials say they have learned that speedy communication is not always accurate communication. Now they say they will issue brief holding statements about an incident and follow up with a more detailed statement only when school officials have had an opportunity to review and confirm the facts of a situation.
Martire said that it is an unfortunate sign of the times that the school board has to be so focused on school security.
“It shouldn’t be that we should be this worried about violence at this level in an educational setting but we have to be, the world intervened,” Martire said.