Some Riverside District 96 parents and students were bewildered and unnerved when they arrived at the Central/Hauser campus and at Ames School on Monday. No fewer than four network TV vans were parked outside Central School and Hauser Junior High, while one TV news crew sought out interviews at Ames School.
In addition, there was a police presence at all three schools. Officers who normally maintain a low-key presence at arrival and dismissal times were standing out in front of the school entrances.
The spectacle led at least some to assume the worst.
“There were kids coming in and saying there was a shooting here,” said Hauser Junior High Principal Leslie Berman.
In reality, the reporters and police were there in the wake of the Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Friday.
The presence of police was intentional, said Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, to give parents an opportunity to ask them questions and allay any concerns about the department’s readiness to respond to an emergency situation.
The arrival of all of the TV news folks was not part of the plan. While they had not been asked to come to Riverside, all of those media outlets subscribe to the Nixle emergency notification service. On Saturday night, Weitzel had sent out a statement via Nixle after getting more than a dozen phone calls from school parents in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.
“With that large a response, I felt it was incumbent on me to put out a statement,” said Weitzel
In addition to letting parents know that police and schools had plans in place for such emergencies, he added that police would be on hand in front of the schools “to reassure parents that RPD personnel are ready to assist in any type of emergency situation that may take place at Riverside schools.”
That last detail, about police being in front of schools, apparently triggered the TV crews. The reporters stayed in the area until almost noon, prompting a barrage of phone calls to the school principals about the news media’s presence.
On Monday evening about 7 p.m., Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson sent out an email to district families explaining that the school district had no knowledge of the impending media swarm. He said it was “appalling that the news trucks descended on many D96 schools less than one school day after the tragedy in Connecticut.”
While the news vans avoided North Riverside and Brookfield schools, police there also responded to the Connecticut incident in order to reassure parents and students.
On Friday afternoon at dismissal time, Brookfield police officers patrolled in front of schools on foot, rather than staying in their squad cars, in order to talk to parents and students, said Brookfield police Lt. Edward Petrak.
“The kids and families are used to seeing us,” said Petrak, “but on Friday they got out of the car and mingled.”
Also on Friday, in North Riverside, a squad car was parked outside of Komarek School throughout the day, said Police Chief Anthony Garvey.
School districts are required by state law to share their emergency plans with local police. In all three villages, police meet annually with school personnel to discuss emergency response plans.
Departments and school districts on an annual basis cooperate on lockdown drills during school hours, and police have done additional rapid response training inside Riverside-Brookfield High School on days when students are not present.
“We have officers going through the building doing scenarios with other agencies,” said Weitzel.
Local school districts responded to the Sandy Hook shootings in a variety of ways.
At Komarek School in North Riverside, three staff members circulated throughout the building on Monday to meet with students who wanted to talk with adults about the tragic events and express their feelings.
“We had some students who did meet with them this morning,” said District 94 Superintendent Neil Pellicci on Monday.
Pellicci added that the school will do additional Code Red drills in January just to be sure that everyone knows what to do in an emergency.
“We don’t want to do it this week because it might scare the children,” Pellicci said.
At Komarek, unlike many schools, visitors do not have to be buzzed into the building.
“I’ve already had a conversation with our school board about adding door-locking procedures to our security, possibly adding a buzz-in system, but again that’s the board’s decision,” Pellicci said. “That’s something we’re going to talk about at the next meeting on Jan. 8.”
At Riverside District 96 and Brookfield District 95, the emphasis Monday was on keeping things routine.
“Purposefully we have tried to keep our day as normal and routine as possible, simply because we know that’s a good measure for kids,” said Mark Kuzniewski, superintendent of Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95.
Kuzniewski did request that a LaGrange Park police officer who occasionally visits Brook Park Elementary School be present outside the school Monday morning.
D95 also sent a letter home with students about the shootings.
In D96, Lamberson sent an email Sunday night recommending that parents limit the exposure of their kids to media accounts of the shooting. At the elementary schools in D96 the shootings were not brought up Monday.
“We asked teachers not to initiate the topic, not to speak with the class as whole, but then in the event that students have concerns or wanted to express their emotions, then we have a social worker available to speak individually with students,” said Mindy Keller, principal of Hollywood School.
Keller and Blythe Park School Principal Bob Chleboun said no students at their schools asked to meet with a social worker.
Since middle-school students were likely to know of the shooting, Hauser Junior High School Principal Leslie Berman read a statement about the shootings during morning announcements. After the statement, students and staff observed a moment of silence for the victims.
Students were encouraged to reach out to an adult they trust if they needed to talk to someone.
Berman said she would meet with students this week to discuss emergency procedures and will have an intruder drill in January. The drill will be announced in advance so as to not unnecessarily frighten students.