While teachers polished their lesson plans and custodians polished floors in anticipation of last week’s first day of school, safety personnel gathered at Evanston Township High School to hone skills for something everyone hopes will never happen – a school disaster.
Bomb and hostage squads from the Cook County Sheriff’s Department briefed safety staff from ETHS and District 65 about how to handle an all-school emergency.
Frank Kaminski, retired Evanston police chief and present director of safety and security at ETHS, says the staff at ETHS have “put a lot of effort in to making sure all crisis plans are up-to-date.” The school had one alert in the 2007-08 academic year, he said – a “false bomb threat, and all the procedures went well.”
“We are striving to nurture a positive school climate where students feel ownership and take responsibility for keeping themselves and others safe,” District 202 Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon told the RoundTable. “We do have clear rules regarding behavior and safety, and our students appreciate knowing that we are all committed to creating a good learning environment. We see students taking a leadership role at ETHS in helping teachers and staff maintain a safe, positive school climate,” he added.
School started last year under a cloud, with the shooting death last summer of football player Darryl Shannon Pickett. Mr. Kaminski said school personnel “worried about retaliation, but we did a lot of background work and made things as safe as we could.”
One method Mr. Kaminski has employed is a “positive presence” at the school as classes are dismissed for the day. Similar to a tactic he employed as police chief, the positive presence at the high school consists of having civic leaders stand and watch as the students leave the school.
“We’ve connected with clergy and service clubs who stand outside when school lets out,” he said. “The kids see adults standing out there and it sends a message that the community cares about them. It’s a simple concept, but it sends a great message,” he added.
Among the groups that volunteered as positive presences in the last school year were PEER Services, the McGaw YMCA, Youth Organizations Umbrella and the Kiwanis Club of Evanston. The school has added an outdoor camera and mounted a video camera on at least one of the safety cars, Mr. Kaminski said.
One role for which several ETHS students have volunteered is that of peer juror. Last year the high school implemented a restorative justice program under which students’ misconduct is mediated and evaluated by their peers – a program calledrestorative justice.
The school also maintains a 24-hour safety hotline, 1-888-214-4445, to which students can report anonymously.
“These kids are still growing up, but they have a lot more pressure on them than we ever had – a lot more to deal with,” said Mr. Kaminski.
Two big threats to teenagers, says Dr. Witherspoon, are drinking alcohol and using illegal drugs. “Because of the influence of popular media and peer pressure, students do not always recognize the danger,” he said, adding, “Developmentally, teenagers are still growing into adulthood and are not equipped to handle the threats of drugs and alcohol. Drug and alcohol use can lead to risky decisions, suicidal thoughts, depression, dropping out of school activities, feelings of isolation, and poorer performance in school.”
Heading into the 2008-09 academic year, Mr. Kaminski and Dr. Witherspoon said they feel very positive about the school climate and about the students who attend ETHS. Dr. Witherspoon said problems are “often averted because students approach adults they trust and tell us if a problem is developing.”Said Mr. Kaminski, “The last time I polled the kids, the vast majority of them said they feel safe here – and that’s a great tribute to them.”
Crisis Management Plan
According to the ETHS handbook, The Pilot, ETHS has a “”comprehensive plan to cover a variety of crises that might occur at the high school.”” The plan, developed with the Evanston police, fire and City administration, “”applies to all emergencies that take place during or after school hours, including extracurricular activities and sports events; club, teacher and parent meetings; dances; or any activity in which a group or organization may be using the school building.””
The plan is based on a system of safety codes, which will be announced to all staff and students.
The school also has fire alarms and tornado alerts – similar to those heard statewide at 10 a.m. on the first Tuesday of the month.
Frank Kaminski, director of safety for ETHS said the school practices safety drills throughout the year: one bus, one weather-related, three fire and the optional “”report of intruder”” drills.
Pay attention to bullying,”” Sergeant Laurance Drish of the Sheriff’s police bomb unit told the nearly 40 persons who attended a school-safety seminar at Evanston Township High School last month. “”Eighty-five percent of [school] shooters interviewed by police said the shooting had to do with bullying. Most of them brought their weapons to school – and most of them die in the shooting,”” he added.
ETHS school policy prohibits bullying, hazing, threatening, sexual misconduct and other types of antisocial behavior, according to information in the ETHS handbook, “”The Pilot.””
Frank Kaminski, director of safety for ETHS, said, “”We get a few instances of bullying [reported]. The problem is that it’s often unreported. We do a lot of training with staff. My staff is trying to watch out for behavior that might be [problematic] and connect with one of the deans if that’s appropriate. We try to be positive, but we do worry about that one student [who might cause trouble for others].””