Can SWAT drills help protect Chicago students?

Can SWAT drills help protect Chicago students?

Chicago schoolchildren will always have access to the only bullet-proof shield in their classrooms: their own bodies. But in the tense few minutes before a district-wide school lockdown is conducted, the last refuge of hundreds of children is not always a reassuring safety-proof fortress.

Many police and emergency services agencies have long conducted lockdown drills, which simulate a school shooting and practice methods to secure and evacuate a school, and where students can practice the steps of fleeing from a gun-carrying aggressor.

But the thought of having your child’s life in the hands of poorly trained emergency responders raises serious constitutional questions of protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

And as a recent study found, a high percentage of parents object to any SWAT-style training conducted on their children. As best we can tell, these concerns are not widely understood by security officials.

During a lockdown drill on Dec. 21, 2018, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School in Alsip, Ill., was canceled and many of its students, aged 6 through 8, were evacuated to a nearby Walgreen’s.

In a report made public in January, the District Office of School Planning and Operations—which is held directly responsible for protecting students at the Illinois School for the Deaf—found that students weren’t told they had to fake an emergency at the pharmacy store for safety reasons.

“In most scenarios, the children are under the impression that they are being evacuated from their classroom for a special event,” the police department noted in a search-light-like document, “rather than a police drama.”

This would change next semester at Mount Carmel, where teams of third- and fourth-graders were offered SWAT training sessions as part of a hands-on learning experience.

This is a first. The teachers’ unions representing unionized public school teachers across the country—the American Federation of Teachers and the Chicago Teachers Union—have condemned the practice of practicing school lockdowns in adult environments.

Both United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and the Alliance for Justice, two respected legal nonprofits, have also protested these seemingly unnecessary exercises.

The unions have cited safety concerns that don’t appear to be unreasonable, as the National Institute of Justice notes that 28 states now permit police to enter a school building after a lockdown without first obtaining a search warrant.

Shelby Moore, a former nurse and member of Concerned Nurses Across America who now serves as the organization’s program director, stated in a letter to the board of the Chicago Public Schools that “we must push lawmakers to mandate emergency law enforcement to do everything they can, not only with guns, but with other non-lethal tools, to disarm and protect kids as they do at many other school settings.”

These concerns about the chilling effect of lockdowns on children are only compounded by a new report released earlier this month by the Illinois Policy Institute, which found that parents “feel that the risks are higher during lockdown drills at schools than anytime other school in the past three years.”

In a survey of parents, 77 percent of the 956 said they want “to be given assurances that police personnel will not enter a student’s classroom in a school shooting without first obtaining a search warrant.”

This would present a serious problem for all schoolchildren in the Chicago area. More than 70,000 Chicago Public Schools students currently receive assistance through Project Safe School, a partnership between the district and the University of Chicago.

In grades K-12, it delivers team-building and academic challenges that are usually offered to students who have difficulty in school. And the recently launched Safe Every Day! program, which focuses on violence prevention, also teaches its own students how to navigate a potentially dangerous situation in a way that limits their physical and emotional vulnerabilities.

Safe School is a child-centered, non-threatening environment that helps children navigate the uncertainties and fears of 21st century living and learning.

Some parents understand the upside to such an innovative effort, which helps reduce the already reduced contact between children and their teachers. But many, like parents of children in Rockford, Ill., who had their school placed on lockdown in January, want more direct assurance from police that they will not be entering the building during a emergency.

Children are great at preparing themselves for future challenges—such as trouble at school. But we want to make sure that they’re also prepared for those extraordinary challenges that genuinely exist.

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