SYCAMORE – On Wednesday morning, a school resource officer winged a Dixon High School student with a bullet, preventing him from opening fire during graduation rehearsal.
It isn’t difficult for Ryan Hooper, one of two SROs who work in Sycamore School District 427, to imagine a scenario in which a trained professional wouldn’t be on hand to react and save lives.
“You don’t have to look very far,” he said, pointing out that in Kane County, Kaneland and Burlington Central high schools share a resource officer. “There, should something happen at one high school or the other, he’d have to drive from one high school to the other.”
Although police declined to identify him, several eyewitnesses said the Dixon High shooter was former senior Matthew Milby, 19.
Milby came to the school about 8 a.m. and entered the foyer of the Lancaster Gym, where about 150 seniors were getting ready to practice for Sunday’s graduation ceremony.
Hooper monitors Sycamore High, while fellow Sycamore officer Stacy Binkowski looks after the other Sycamore schools. Their boss, Police Chief Jim Winters, is a member of a legislative committee that’s battled a bill previously geared to replace SROs with social workers.
House Bill 4208, filed by state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Westchester, would establish the Safe Schools and Health Learning Environment Program. This initiative seeks to provide competitive grant funding for districts trying to reduce their reliance on law enforcement.
If the bill passes, in order to get special grant funding, districts will need to hire restorative justice practitioners, school psychologists, social workers and other mental or behavioral health specialists. Grant funds will not be used to increase the use of school-based law enforcement or security personnel.
In its initial incarnation, House Bill 4208 more or less asked districts to replace resource officers with social workers, Winters said.
“We want social workers just as much as the schools do, but we don’t want it to be an either-or situation,” he said, adding that the Illinois Police Chiefs Association was opposed to the bill, but has shifted its stance to neutral since the amendment.
The change removed language stating that the General Assembly recognizes that the use of school-based law enforcement has not proved effective as a strategy to promote safe and productive schools.
“Today’s incident in Dixon was a perfect example of why we want to have SROs at the school,” Winters said. “Not only is there a safety element with SROs, but they are at the core of community policing. What better community to be involved in than your local school district, where there are 4,000 students and employees.”
DeKalb police have two school resource officers who watch over the 11 schools in DeKalb School District 428: Aaron Lockhart and Jose Jaques.
“The responsibility of school resource officers is to promote school safety and security,” Lockhart said. “But the SRO also helps to educate the students and acts as a liaison between the police, teachers, students and parents.”
District 428 Superintendent Jamie Craven said he hopes legislators will leave it up to individual communities to decide whether to try and take advantage of the additional funding.
“There are some schools that may not feel the need to have an SRO, and others where I feel having an SRO is necessary for the safety of students,” Craven said. “I value what the SROs bring to the district on a lot of different levels, such as their expertise in helping us plan and respond for different events that occur throughout the year.”
Since it reached the Senate, the bill has been voted out of committee and has had a second reading.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, introduced another amendment to the bill that has yet to be assigned to committee. If the Senate approves the amended legislation, it would be brought back to the House for another vote of approval before being sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner.
State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, who voted no on the bill in committee but voted to pass it after it was amended, said he’s conflicted on the issue, but acknowledged more resources other than SROs are needed to stop tragedies.
“We definitely need more social workers and psychiatrists to deal with the mental health components,” Pritchard said. “My concern is that SROs, in and of themselves, do not give the kind of safe environment most people would expect.”
Craven said that in DeKalb, SROs take on an interactive approach with students on a daily basis.
“In many cases, our SROs are part of the restorative practice of meeting with parents and students to discuss student actions, whether it be a physical altercation or students that are having relationship problems that may be aggressive or inappropriate,” Craven said. “They are not just patrolling our hallways. They are part of the solution.”
However, Craven said he did not want to diminish the importance of social workers in the district. In February, the District 428 board approved a plan to add 11 new positions, five of which would be social workers, during the 2018-19 school year.
“I think it’s a combination of the two,” Craven said. “I don’t think it’s an either-or.”