Harrisburg school board heard a mild sparring match Thursday night between Harrisburg Police Sergeant Whipper Johnson who questioned the training of staff in dealing with a school shooter and Superintendent Dennis Smith who said the staff is prepared.
Officers have been walking through schools and patrolling parking lots this week as a response to the massacre of school children in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Johnson — speaking for himself and not for the city police department — said from his experience this week, if there is a problem in the schools, he will not be effective in coordinating a response — other than going after the person causing that problem.
He voiced frustration at his inability to even alert the office he was leaving for 20 minutes to put gas in his squad car.
He said he tried to call the office, but was delayed by the automated phone system.
“This takes forever to get hold of anybody,” Johnson said.
He has cell phone numbers for administrators, but he said if there was a problem he would need to know where they are in the building in order to effect a response to that problem.
“It’s a great idea and I guess it makes somebody feel better we’re in the schools, but as a taxpayer you’re wasting my money. I can’t get ahold of anybody in the office to tell them to lock down if I have problems in Davenport Gym, I can’t let anybody know in the library,” Johnson said.
Johnson said several — as many as 1/3 of the high school staff — has expressed to him they would not know what to do if there was a situation anything like the Newtown, Conn., massacre and alluded the district is negligent in training staff for such an event.
“Bottom line is, if something had gone wrong today, yeah, I would know how to handle the situation, but your staff doesn’t and I can’t teach them,” Johnson said.
“By Illinois Statute you’re mandated to have these drills and the police department has to sign off on it.”
Smith disagreed that teachers have not had training. He said he is confident the staff knows exactly what to do in the event of a school shooter and if teachers are saying they don’t know then there is a need for retraining.
“I’m sorry, they do know. I don’t know who you were talking to today, but we have done this training and our teachers know,” Smith said.
Since the Columbine, Colorado, school shooting, training for such tragedies has become more of a priority in schools.
Page 2 of 3 - “Ten years ago in Columbine nobody knew what to do, they were walking around, but that instinct of what you saw happen in Sandy Hook would happen with my teachers. They would drag kids out of the hall and would take them in, they would lock them, and they do know that. And anyone who said they don’t know what to do, I would call them unqualified for not going to their principal and saying, ‘If this happens what do we do?’”
Superintendent Dennis Smith took exception to Johnson insinuation the school is doing nothing.
“These are very serious things to say that we are not training our people and we are training them, but we aren’t great at it,” Smith said.
Smith said there are things the district needs to do and there is room for improvement. He also said the police department does have all the important cell phone numbers and that there may be a need to discuss the value of the automated call system.
He also said the district is in talks with a magnetic alarm company and getting prices on doors and there is a plan to open a hole in wall at West Side to get better observation. Smith said staff trained with a SWAT team — of which Johnson is a member — a couple of years ago and there may be a need for a new training involving students.
Smith also said he is for teachers carrying guns in the school though he believes that measure is an impossiblity.
“If you want to arm teachers in my school building I am 100 percent for that. I couldn’t agree more with that, but trying to get that through the Illinois legislature, it’s never going to happen,” Smith said.
During the meeting:
The board approved the formation of a committee of two board members and principals to address ways to save money before the Jan. 15 board meeting. Smith has proposed not replacing six positions that will be open when staff retire this year. The committee will be charged with determining if cost savings might be found in other ways that would not raise class sizes.
The board discussed the need for a campaign to educate the public prior to the April 9 election regarding a resolution for a $29,000,000 bond issue to support construction of a new school. The bond should be paid with the safety tax for schools expected to generate $900,000 for the district per year. Board member Matt Winkleman said the wording of the referendum question was troubling, especially a part that indicated property taxpayers could be responsible if the sales tax or state aid money fell short of the payment needed for the bond issue.
Page 3 of 3 - Smith said the language is required for the referendum question, but it would take an extreme circumstance for property taxes to come into play for a new school.
“It would almost take a complete collapse of the local economy plus Springfield before we could ever touch property taxes,” Smith said.
The board held a hearing for the levy as discussed in the November meeting and no one in the audience addressed it other than Bill Wright who asked if any money levied was going toward new school construction. Smith said it would not. The board approved the levy.
The board approved the resignation of three-hour cook at West Side Carolyn Harrison.
The board approved maternity leave for Amanda Schmidt. Board member Scott Berry abstained.
The board expelled two middle school students — one for disrespecting directives and one for continual disregard for and violation of school rules — and one high school student for use of illegal substances.
The board hired extraordinary care aides Rebekah Patton, Brittany Hustedler, Melissa Sullivan and Sheila Clore.