Kayley Henderson had her first lesson in school safety long before she became a fourth-grade teacher at Bent Elementary in Bloomington. She was a senior at Normal Community High School in 2012 when another student brought a loaded gun into a classroom.
“I was terrified,” Henderson recalled. “It was just so eerie to be walking through the hallway with nobody there and you had to keep your hands up.”
Henderson recalls how quiet it was as she and her classmates hid in the corner of their classroom, not sure of what was going on. She recalls it took hours before she was able to tell her mom she was OK.
“Me being a rule follower, I didn’t have my cell phone on me and I felt really bad for my mom because I wasn’t able to contact her,” Henderson said. “From that point on, she was like, ‘I don’t care, have your phone with you.’”
By the time police arrived, the gunman had fired several shots into the ceiling and a teacher overwhelmed the student. No one was hurt.
Brian Evans was one of the first police officers to respond to the school that morning. He says it may have helped that the school had run a lockdown drill the week before.
“It was a serious issue that we were lucky that we had the outcome that we did, but with that, there was an outstanding response from law enforcement in response to that situation,” Evans said.
Not long after 2012 incident, District 87 approached Evans, a school resource officer at the time, about a new position overseeing school safety districtwide. It was the first of its kind in McLean County devoted specifically to safety and security. As part of his job, Evans is an active shooter instructor, leading police and school administrators through drills when students are on break.
A new Illinois law requires schools to involve students in active shooter drills within the first three months the start of the school year. Illinois lawmakers are responding to heightened concerns amid a rise in mass shootings across the country. But educators in Bloomington-Normal say they've been engaging students in drills for years.
New Unit 5 Protocols
Lockdown drills in schools are nothing new. Unit 5 is changing the drill to fit new best practices as the sad experience of shootings across the country have revealed them.
Jim Allen is principal at Chiddix Junior High in Normal.
“Our procedure used to be revolved around one idea and one idea only and that is that we lock the doors, turn off the lights and hide in the corner,” Allen said. “There was really no other instruction to staff and students than that.”
Allen said hiding might not always be an option. He said the district is telling students to go to plan B.
“If you cannot lock down, let’s say it’s before school and we have kids in the hallway or it’s lunchtime and something happens in the cafeteria, it’s really very difficult to secure that large of a space or something like a hallway by locking down.”
Each school has a designated site where students should gather. If that's not an option, Unit 5 policy acknowledges you might have to fight as students in the Normal Community classroom did seven years ago.
Allen said the policy is specific to each grade level as some students might not be physically able to run away.
Unit 5 is still working on how to implement the new policy and explain it to students. Unit 5 attorney and safety program coordinator Curt Richardson said schools don't plan to simulate the run and fight options during drills. They plan to stick with lockdowns.
“We are not here to put them through a drill that traumatizes them. The actual incident will be traumatizing enough,” Richardson said. “We want especially our teachers to know what the options are for students and then it’s students at the secondary level, the higher levels, we can talk with them about some of those other options we well.”
Richardson said a foundation formed by parents of a school shooting victim created the run-hide-fight model. He said much of what's in the policy, coincidentally, reflects how students and staff handled that gun incident at NCHS.
“Looking back at it now, I think this has kind of come full circle and the training we are providing and I am glad we are at this point,” He said. “This is what the government is emphasizing as best practices and so we are now putting those in place, empowering our students and empowering our teachers.”
The training can be heavy and jarring material for children, especially young kids. Teachers have to deal with that fallout.
Bent Elementary principal Jeff Geringer recalls a conversation with one upset parent.
“I sat down with the parents and I listened to their concerns about how it would be scaring kids,” Geringer recalled. “I explained that we are preparing for the worst and we hope it never, ever happens because we want to keep our kids safe. It was kind of hard to argue against that.”
Educators like Geringer say they understand they have to walk a fine line, conveying how important the drills are without scaring students or disrupting the learning climate.
“I could make it safe, but it’s a school. I’m not going to put bars on the window,” he said. “I don’t want to make it a prison. It’s a school. It should be a warm and inviting environment. That’s the trick, isn’t it?”
Bent Elementary teacher Kayley Henderson said she had a harder time as a student teacher when she talked to first-graders.
“Knowing who my students are, even this year, I think my fourth-graders could quickly figure out instinctively,” Henderson said. “I’m not sure any lower grades (could).
“It’s a fight-or-flight thing and also we’ve taken the time to prepare.”
Brian Evans has been running shooter driller lesson plans for teachers in District 87 schools for four years. He said it's up to the teachers to know their students and carry out those plans with the appropriate amount of tact.
He said the district's youngest students, grades two and under, seem to handle these drills the best.
“There’s a misconception, I think, out there that this is going to scare kids. ‘My kids are going to be traumatized,’” Evans said. “I have found just the opposite.”
Evans said there was a time when the sight of police cars at a school caused alarm; now they are a comforting sign to many.
“I guess back in the day there was probably a time where (people thought) ‘What’s that police car doing sitting outside our school?’” He said. “Today, I get questions, when I left the (school resource officer) program, why is the Bloomington Police car not sitting in front of our school?”
That may be because more schools have their own resource officers. District 87 and Unit 5 have officers at each junior high and high school. They say that puts them minutes away from any grade school in the Twin Cities. Both schools and police fund those positions.
After school shootings, gun rights supporters sometimes suggest arming teachers and administrators. Illinois is one of 10 states that allows concealed carry in schools.
Unit 5's Curt Richardson said given the district's access to armed officers, he doesn't ever see the need to allow firearms in the classroom.
“We are fortunate to live in a community where we have those resources available to us and can work with them,” Richardson said. “I do understand it’s a different discussion in some rural communities where they don’t have law enforcement readily available.”
District 87 hasn't adopted the "run, hide fight" mantra. Evans is going with "adapt and overcome." It's less specific by design.
“To actually tell a person what to do, like you are going to follow these steps, you have to be careful doing that as well, because they are going to follow that no matter what and that may not be what they need to do in that situation,” Evans said.
Evans' job at District 87 involves more than drills. Safety also includes crossing guards, school parking and street design. But Evans said he's grateful Superintendent Barry Reilly wants staff dedicated to school safety.
“I think he had a vision that has proven to be accurate in today’s society with things that are going on in our (country), from Walmarts to schools to you name it,” Evans said.
Evans said only a handful of downstate school districts have staff specifically dedicated to school safety. He said his job also entails efforts to prevent a crisis. Every year, Evans trains teachers and staff how to look for signs that a student is having trouble.
“It may not be mental illness for them, but maybe they are experiencing opioid addiction crisis or depression and things like that with family members,” he said. “Then these kids are coming into our buildings trying to learn. Our teachers are trying to teach them.”
Educators might be more in tune with student mental health needs as school shootings have become more common. But Bent Elementary principal Jeff Geringer said he doesn’t believe teachers ever needed a greater sense of urgency than they already had.
“More incidents in the news don’t add to the urgency because I have not met the educator yet that wouldn’t throw themselves into danger for the safety of their students,” Geringer said.
Geringer said while he hopes that day never comes, he believes his experience in the Marines would serve him well. He says it has taught him to always be prepared for anything.
“I do think about that sort of thing and I see someone walking down the sidewalk and I glance,” he said. “You want to trust people, but here I like that saying ‘trust but verify.’”
As teachers help train students on what could be life-saving plans, teachers are always learning too. Kayley Henderson says the classroom gunfire she experienced as a student affects her even now.
“Pretty much anywhere I go, if I am sitting in the doctor’s office, if I’m in the grocery store, I always have an escape route now,” she said. “That’s definitely changed my mentality.”
Henderson said she shares her story with students to help them understand the importance of always having a plan.
CNN reports 22 school shootings in which someone was injured or killed in the U.S. in the first seven months of 2019.
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