The chief of Elgin High School
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org January 27, 2013 9:52PM
School resource officer Det. Bill Wood checks locked exterior doors as part of a a safety procedure Thursday at Elgin High School. January 24, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 1, 2013 6:51AM
ELGIN — It was Thursday, eighth hour, and Elgin Police Detective Bill Wood was checking doors at Elgin High School.
There are 20-some doors to the outside of the building, Wood said, and every class period, he gives them all a push, making sure they’re locked; That, and the four doors to the gym. Two swung open freely.
“I’ll yell at them about that later,” he said, continuing his way around the school.
The detective chided one student who wasn’t wearing her ID during a passing period and politely declined another selling cookie dough and cinnamon rolls for a fundraiser. He stopped several adults wearing visitors’ badges, parents looking for a classroom.
“That’s my day,” he said.
Of course, that’s not all Wood does during the day.
The detective is one of 14 school resource officers in Elgin School District U46 — officers with the Elgin, South Elgin, Bartlett and Streamwood police departments stationed at each of the middle and high schools in the second-largest school district in Illinois. All are armed.
His day can include dealing with everything from thefts to something as serious as a sexual assault, he said. He watches students come in and he watches students leave. And he works closely with the school’s two counselors, doing, for lack of a better word, “threat assessments,” he said. They determine when they may need to counsel a student in school and when they may need to have a conversation with a parent or guardian — and when a student just may need to drop by his office to vent.
At a school of 2,378 students, plus teachers and administrators and other staff, Wood said, it’s not unlike being “the police chief of a confined city.”
“We work with the administration to not only enforce state law, but school law – school rules and regulation,” he said.
Part of the plan to reduce gun violence announced earlier this month by President Barack Obama is to make schools safer; namely, by putting 1,000 more school resource officers like Wood, as well as counselors, into school buildings across the country.
Wood has been at Elgin High School for four years, and, having that presence, building those relationships, he said, “There’s an absolute difference.”
After his announcement, Obama signed an executive action to provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.
COPS Hiring Grants already can be used to fund school resource officers, according to the White House. U46 is in the second year of a COPS Grant from Elgin to buy radios and laptops and portable breathalyzer tests, and it has received those grants in the past according to district safety coordinator John Heiderscheidt.
Those grants have been cancelled the past few years, Heiderscheidt said. This year, though, the Department of Justice will give police departments preference for grant applications that support school resource officers, according to the White House.
The Obama administration also has proposed a new Comprehensive School Safety program to help school districts hire staff and make other critical investments in school safety. That program will give $150 million to school districts and law enforcement agencies to hire school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers and counselors, according to the White House.
Comprehensive School Safety Grants also could be used to purchase school safety equipment, develop and update public safety plans and conduct threat assessments, it said. And they could be used to train “crisis intervention teams” of law enforcement officers to work with the mental health community to respond to and assist students in crisis.
The president’s plan also includes ensuring every school has a comprehensive emergency management plan and creating a safer climate at schools across the country.
Neither U46 nor neighboring Community Unit School District 300 has gotten any guidance yet what those orders practically will mean for their schools, district officials said.
But, state Rep. Michael Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, said, “Much of what the president proposed we’ve already done here in Illinois. What we need to do now is get serious about gun violence.”
Tryon’s comments came during the District 300 Legislative Reception last week, in response to a question from the audience: “What do you think communities should do to make our schools safer?”
District 300 has four school resource officers, one at each of its high schools as well as one at Carpentersville Middle School, according to district spokeswoman Allison Strupeck.
For the past few years, both districts 300 and U46 also annually have trained their school staffs to handle active shooter situations in their buildings and held lockdown drills with students. The Elgin Police Department has planned a training next month specifically for school resource officers in those situations, too, Wood said.
Tryon said at the reception he believes the Carpentersville-based district is “a very safe school system.” He stressed instead the president’s proposals to improve mental health services, something he said would treat the causes, not the symptoms, of gun violence.
And West Dundee Village President Larry Keller, who turned to politics after a career as a teacher, expressed support that night for the assault weapons ban the president also proposed as part of his plan to reduce gun violence. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to do that Thursday.
In addition to his background in education, Keller also is a hunter and gun owner.
“I think that would be a great place to start,” he said.
But the village president said, “It wouldn’t prevent people from doing stupid things. We can’t legislate against that. We can watch other people -- watch our friends. I’m talking about us doing that for the people around us.”
“If somebody is having a problem, somebody usually notices.”
No typical day
Elgin High School has had a school resource officer on campus for at least 20 years, Wood said, “But times change. Demographics change.”
In the time Wood has been at the school, crimes reported at Elgin High School have dropped 50.9 percent, according to Heiderscheidt.
Thefts have dropped 47.5 percent, and drug-related incidents involving the student resource officer, 50.2 percent, he said.
There have been no gang-related fights, no incidents of gang graffiti and only one incidence of a weapon at school last year. That’s an 80 percent drop in weapon incidents, according to the district safety coordinator.
And staff would tell you they feel much safer in the building, Wood said.
That’s why the U46 Safety and Security Department awarded Wood the Annual School Safety Award last school year. And that’s the difference a good school resource officer can make, Heiderscheidt said.
“Those are the kinds of things where, with schools and police working together, we can make the community safer. They can help students make better decisions,” he said.