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Southland schools sticking to their guns (or lack thereof)

Colleen Curry shows off her online petitiagainst guns schools her home Plainfield IL Friday August 31  2012.

Colleen Curry shows off her online petition against guns in schools at her home in Plainfield, IL on Friday August 31, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 3, 2012 6:05AM



No one wants to think about a shooting taking place in a school.

Plainfield Police Chief John Konopek said he has no choice.

“Unfortunately, part of my job is to plan for the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Among his plans is a controversial one that has created a stir in his community and is the subject of debate elsewhere, including the Southland.

Konopek wants school resource officers to have access to more firepower in case of emergencies, and police have requested that the Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 Board consider installing a gun safe — where a patrol rifle would be kept — in the police offices of four Plainfield high schools.

Southland school and police officials don’t think such a measure is necessary. Some schools are near police stations, some have resource officers who are armed and have additional weapons in their vehicles, and some have no resource officer at all and say none is needed.

“Are we that dangerous of a society that this is a necessity? Personally, I’d like to think not,” said William Joyce, president of the South Suburban Association of Chiefs of Police.

Joyce, the South Chicago Heights police chief, said he had never heard of a school district having such a policy and said there’s no need for one in nearby Bloom and Bloom Trail high schools.

He said many local police who work at schools receive first-responder training to learn how to react to school shootings and other crises.

At a recent meeting of the south suburban police chiefs, Joyce reached out to the group’s members and “nobody” thought storing guns in a safe at school was a good idea, he said.

“I’m much more for our officers being equipped in their own vehicles, but not necessarily putting weapons in schools,” Joyce said.

‘Overreaction’

Some Southland high schools don’t even have a regular police presence. Each has its own way of handling security, and no school officials contacted by the SouthtownStar see a need to use their buildings as an armory.

In Community High School District 218, there is a uniformed officer in each school — Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Richards in Oak Lawn, and Shepard in Palos Heights, Supt. John Byrne said. The officers spend their shifts inside the school, in uniform, carrying their service revolvers. Their squads, with additional weapons, are parked in the school lot. Local police stations are only a half-mile to 1 1/2 miles away.

Byrne, who used to teach in Plainfield schools, believes that’s all that’s necessary and that the Plainfield plan to store high-powered rifles inside is an “overreaction.”

“I do not feel like we need to stock their weapons,” he said. “Should I install a (jail) cell next? An interrogation room? A SWAT team? It’s a bit of an overreaction. I don’t get it.”

Consolidated High School District 230 doesn’t even have officers assigned full time inside Sandburg, Andrew or Stagg high school. It has liaison officers who meet regularly and collaborate with staff “to assure a safe learning environment,” district spokeswoman Carla Erdey said.

The Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 schools use armed Will County Sheriff’s officers as resource officers. Armed Lockport police are at the Lockport high school.

Lockport police considered storing extra weapons at the high school campuses “prior to the recent local media’s attention ... it just never progressed from there,” Lockport Police Lt. Dave Draksler said. “None of our schools has approached us with such a plan.”

Crete-Monee High School stopped using resource officers when a grant that funded the program expired, district spokeswoman Melissa Burda said.

Tinley Park Police Chief Steve Neubauer said his officers are trained for rapid response if an incident merits it.

“Whether they are in school or out, police need to respond,” he said.

He declined to comment specifically on Plainfield’s plan, saying, “There are all different theories on the level of arms needed.”

The part-time retired Oak Lawn police officer at Oak Lawn Community High School does not carry a sidearm, and spends most of his time on truancy and residency issues, Assistant Principal Joe McCurdy said.

“We’ve had no requests for arms,” he said. “If a situation arises, he would handle it like anyone else — call the police. There have been no conversations about changing our practice and certainly no conversations about following Plainfield’s model. It’s a relatively new concept.”

A District 202 committee may consider the proposal at its Sept. 19 meeting.

Debate in Plainfield

Plainfield officers train each year to respond to campus shootings and regularly meet with administrators to discuss student safety. School resource officers there carry sidearms and also are trained to use patrol rifles — semi-automatic weapons that typically use 20- and 30-round magazines.

School shooting training has demonstrated that a long gun, which offers increased long-range accuracy, is more effective.

“We hope it will never be (needed),” Konopek said. “But it’s another tool in the toolbox.”

Speaking hypothetically, Konopek said an officer would not go to the safe if he were already on the opposite end of the building and an intruder was threatening students.

That scenario had occurred to Colleen Curry, of Plainfield, who has organized a petition urging the school board to reject the department’s request.

“I see it as a largely unnecessary expenditure for a risk that is nominal. It sends a message we’re a community of alarmists,” she said.

As the parent of a young son whom she expects to eventually attend Plainfield High School, Curry “understands the fear,” but she cited a National Center for Education Statistics finding that put the odds of a child being murdered at school at 1 in 2 million.

“There is no greater safety achieved with this weapon, and it sends a bad message to parents and students alike about safety in our schools,” Curry said.

But Plainfield wouldn’t be alone if installed weapons safes. Minooka Police Chief Justin Meyer acknowledged a rifle has been kept at Minooka High School for a couple of years, secured in a gun locker, with a school resource officer being the only one with a key.

“After the department trained for an active shooter, we thought it was a good tool to have and discussed it with administration,” Meyer said. “It hasn’t been an issue.”



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