Concerns about threats to school safety and a growing spotlight on student mental health were the focus of a panel discussion featuring officials from Naperville Community Unit School District 203 and Indian Prairie School District 204.
The event held Monday night, put on by state Rep. Janet Yang Rohr, aimed to give residents and community members a behind-the-scenes look at school safety and how to better promote it.
Panelists stressed the importance of taking every threat seriously regardless of whether an individual is joking or not.
District 203 and District 204 Superintendents Dan Bridges and Adrian Talley both acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated ongoing issues with mental health that may prompt students to act out when stressed, which in turn could result in more threats to school safety.
Bridges noted the importance of focusing more on mental health and wellness among students. “I think knowing that we’ve all over the past almost two years now experienced some level of trauma related to the pandemic just recognizing that it really is at an elevated level right now, we have to be aware of that,” said Bridges.
Reviewing the Numbers
In 2019, DuPage County charged 30 individuals in school threat cases. That figure dropped in 2020 when schools went remote in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since schools have reopened, numbers have now started to climb again, with 11 charges to individuals in school threat cases within the county reported to date this year.
Panelists acknowledged that at times, threats to public safety are prompted by young people crying for help. This is where the juvenile justice system in both DuPage and Will counties play a hand in deterring new and/or repeat offenses.
DuPage County State’s Attorney Bob Berlin emphasized the importance of connecting young people and their families to resources in the community that can help them.
“The object here is not to punish,” Berlin said. “We’re not about putting students in jail. It would serve no purpose, but we do want to get them the help they need and be proactive to prevent something serious from happening in our schools.”
The Issue with Social Media
The rise of media has changed the nature and number of school threats.
“I think maybe the number of threats may be higher—but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily credible threats—but we still have to investigate them all,” Talley said. “So, I think that’s something that we have seen during this pandemic [more] than before.”
One way authorities are working to protect students and staff is by leveraging connections. Berlin said that if a threat is identified, authorities can rely on partnerships made with area law enforcement agencies for support.
Panelists stressed the importance of keeping lines of communication open between members of the public, school officials and law enforcement authorities. At the same time, they acknowledged there are instances where information isn’t always relayed immediately to everyone in the event a threat prompts an investigation.
School officials do not intend to communicate before evaluating the facts surrounding a threat and its credibility, which Talley said makes it almost impossible for them to inform the community before some people may find out.
“Social media really has created that issue for us,” Talley said. “You may hear about things before we’ve communicated them to you. It’s not because we aren’t timely. It’s because we want to make sure it’s credible.”
Naperville Police Chief Jason Arres encourages people to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
“When threats come in, it really causes a lot of stress on the students, their parents, the faculty and staff at schools,” Arres said. “We take our jobs to protect your children very seriously. It is our number one priority, so please work with us to help keep our schools and community safe.”
Naperville News 17’s Megann Horstead reports.
If you have a story idea, we want to hear from you!