The Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday, July 13, to create several new district-wide jobs designed to improve building safety and security in all the schools.
The vote, taken at a special morning meeting at the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center, calls for hiring new positions including 16 concierges who will staff the main entrance to individual school buildings, check in visitors and monitor any people moving in and out of the school campus.
In addition, those concierges will report to the manager and assistant manager of prevention and special response, two more new positions that the district is already interviewing for at this time, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Terrance Little said Wednesday.
The manager and assistant manager of prevention and special response will have a law enforcement or military background and lead any district responses to crisis situations like an intruder or an active shooter, Little and District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said.
The special response team will also provide “direct daily safety measures for the superintendent and the board of education members,” according to the job listings on the district website.
Right now, individual schools do not have someone on staff whose primary job is to check doors, monitor entrances and conduct walkthroughs inside and outside the building, according to Little. As a result, the district needs to invest more time and resources into proactive safety precautions, he said.
“I can honestly say, we’re not in a prevention situation. ‘Safe’ and ‘prevention’ are two different things,” Little said. “We’re not being preventive because we’re in such a great environment and a great place, but it’s just like Highland Park: Anything can happen.”
The district is also in talks with multiple software companies to roll out new technology that would track the location of students throughout the day and allow teachers, staff and administrators to communicate about emergencies more easily, according to Little’s presentation to board members and a memo posted online with the meeting agenda. Those companies include Navigate360, Smart Tag, Hall Pass and Centegix.
Navigate360 will help the district assemble an archive of updated photos that show every inch of every building so law enforcement knows where to go and how to enter a building in the event of a crisis, Little said, while Smart Tag will allow parents and bus drivers to monitor their students on the way to and from school each day. Elementary schoolers would have a Smart Tag card that they can scan as they board the bus, telling the bus driver who they are and where they are supposed to get dropped off.
Middle-school students would have an actual photo ID card through Smart Tag, and parents will be able to log into the Smart Tag app to track the bus that their child rides to school and back. Meanwhile, the concierges in each building will use the Hall Pass program to check in visitors to the school and provide a photo badge for them to wear during their visit.
Centegix, on the other hand, would provide cards to each teacher equipped with a button they can press to alert the main office of a crisis. If the teacher presses the button three times in a row, that would signal the need for an immediate hard lockdown of the building, according to Little.
Board members expressed support for the new positions and most of the company partnerships, but several expressed concerns about collecting data on young children and the risks of normalizing emergency situations by rolling out so many different safety requirements.
“For a teacher to wear a button that normalizes the expectation of a crisis like a shooting is very hard for a human,” Board member Joey Hailpern said. “We have a system available for staff to use from every room in every building to make an announcement like, ‘Everybody needs to get out, everyone needs to take cover, everyone needs to do something’. We don’t need a new system for that. We need to train people on a tool that already exists like a phone line.”
Board President Sergio Hernandez said he agreed with Hailpern, and the board decided to table its discussion of Centegix programs for the time being. As a result, the district has fully approved the concierge and special response positions, as well as partnerships with Hall Pass, Smart Tag and Navigate360.
Hernandez and Board member Biz Lindsay-Ryan also encouraged the district to prioritize coordinating all these services together so all the information is available in one place, and staff members can communicate about a problem that needs to be addressed.
Since the district also removed police officers from school buildings on the recommendation of the board several years ago due to the reports of disproportionate police interactions and discipline of Black and Brown students, Lindsay-Ryan asked district administrators to be mindful of hiring a special response team that is trained in racial equity and shows a willingness to break down traditional law enforcement and military behavior.
Funding new security programs
Going into Wednesday’s meeting, a major question still up in the air was how the district planned to pay for the new positions and technology programs, which Hailpern asked about during the discussion.
According to Horton, the district will fund the security measures and pay the salaries of the new employees by reducing private security costs and bringing substitute teacher training and onboarding in-house. From July 2021 through June 2022, after reporting a number of racist emails and voicemails, Horton received armed “executive protection” from private security guards hired through Phoenix Security.
The personal security detail for the superintendent cost the district about $500,000 over the last year, according to invoices obtained by the RoundTable, and Horton will no longer use that security, he said Wednesday.
Three years ago, the board voted to outsource substitute teachers through an education staffing and recruiting firm called ESS, which former Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Beatrice Davis said would be “cost-neutral.” But the district can now save an estimated $1 million annually by recruiting and training its own pool of substitute teachers, Horton said at Wednesday’s meeting.
According to District 65 Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi, the line item in the annual budget of $400,000 for Phoenix Security “is being redirected to pay for the Manager and Assistant Manager of Prevention and Special Response and the concierge positions.”
Last school year, substitute staffing services from ESS cost the district $1.5 million, Obafemi said, which was an increase from previous years due to staffing shortages during the pandemic.
“By bringing that operation in-house and hiring three staff to run that operation, the district will realize a savings of approximately 1.1 million, which is being used to fund the increase in safety and security staffing,” he said in an email to the RoundTable.
Obafemi’s tentative budget for the 2022-23 school year allots a total of $676,000 for the concierges, manager of prevention and special response and the assistant manager of prevention and special response. The next budget update for the school board on financial projections for Fiscal Year 2023 will take place on Aug. 15.
Ultimately, the district plans to gradually implement the security measures over the next two to three years, according to Little. The concierges, manager and assistant manager of prevention and special response and the Hall Pass program will likely be incorporated into daily school activities first.
“It seems like what we’re talking about with the emergency planning and the concierge is kind of hardening the perimeters of the school, creating a boundary or a force field when something happens. But where do we need to harden, and where do we need to soften?” Board member Soo La Kim asked. “We don’t want the burden of hardening to fall on our educators or our students or our families.”