In the aftermath of a mass shooting at a Florida high school last month, local high school students want more realistic intruder drills and improved mental health services at their schools.
That was the main takeaway from a school safety forum that about 20 students from Riverside-Brookfield High School and Lyons Township High School attended on March 12 at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park.
Approximately 400 high school students from 28 suburban high schools participated in the forum, which also attracted a few state legislators, local government officials and first responders.
The need for better intruder drills was raised by both the RBHS and LTHS groups.
“A lot of our drills were very short and people laughed them off as a joke, where they should be more realistic,” said RBHS sophomore David Was, who presented the RBHS group’s ideas to the crowd.
LTHS Principal Brian Waterman called the students’ suggestion for improvements to those drills a good conversation-starter.
“We’ve already made some immediate changes the last month or so, but we’re always reviewing our emergency plan,” said Waterman. “We have looked at entrances and exits and accessibility to the school, specifically in the mornings, at arrival, and dismissal.”
RBHS students said that they wanted instruction and training about what to do if they are not in a classroom when an armed intruder enters the school.
Principal Kristin Smetana and Assistant Principal of Student Affairs Dave Mannon, both of whom also attended the forum, met with the RBHS students who attended the forum for a few hours over pizza to discuss short- and long-term plans to make the school safer.
“We’ve really given them a lot of ideas as to how to proceed for next year,” said sophomore Kenna Howorth.
Smetana said the administration will try to implement as many of the proposals as they can, given constraints the school faces.
“We agree with them we would like to do more drills and in different situations,” Smetana said. “Unfortunately, in working with schedules we might not be able to pull one off for this year, given that we only have two months left.”
But more drills will probably occur next year.
Students said they also want steps taken to help teachers and staff identify and help students who might pose a danger.
“Mental health is the root of all this,” Waas said.
Smetana said RBHS plans to hire an additional part-time social worker next year. Longtime social worker Mari Mortensen is retiring in June. She will be replaced by a new full-time social worker and a part-time social worker will also be hired to bring the social work staff at RBHS up to 2.4 full-time equivalent employees from the current 2.0.
The plan to hire an additional part time social worker is not a direct result of the Florida school shooting, but had been under consideration prior to Parkland, said Smetana.
Smetana said that she thought that attending the forum was a good experience for the RBHS students.
“Our students got to hear first-hand what some of our senators and state representatives as well as first responders think in regards to student safety,” Smetana said, “what is working and what areas we need to improve upon.”
The RBHS students invited by school officials to attend the forum were the same ones who organized the student walkout of the school on March 14 to commemorate the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14 and to demand action to curb gun violence.
“I really enjoyed it,” said RBHS senior Olutosin Olowu. “I thought it was very empowering and almost inspirational in a sense. It’s not every day that you get to meet state legislators and state reps. I’m a 17 year old. That was pretty cool for me.”
RBHS senior Casey Whisler also thought the forum was useful.
“I found it really inspiring to listen to everybody,” Whisler said. “I saw a lot of cool questions answered.”
The students said they also appreciated that Smetana and Mannon stayed in the background, allowing them to take the lead.
“They took on more of a listening role, which was appreciated,” Whisler said.