In January 2017, 16-year-old Corey Walgren died by suicide not long after he was questioned by school officials and a resource officer at Naperville North, without a parent present.
His story touched Neuqua Valley Senior Rekha Iyer, who happens to be a member of the Youth Advisory Council for Representative Stephanie Kifowit. Together the group looked into the topic.
“So after reading his article we went through a bunch of databases to look at legislation,” said Iyer. “Like what is the protocol when a student gets called in when they’re accused of an offense? When does the parent come into play?”
After their research, the group drafted legislation that provides parental support to students if they’re questioned for a criminal allegation at school, just as Corey had been.
But to get any traction, the bill needed to be brought to Springfield.
“We have a judicial system where you can have representation,” said Kifowit, representing Illinois’ 84th House District. “So really a student should have somebody there, either looking out for their mental wellbeing, making sure the conversation is above par, and overall nobody should be in that situation alone.”
So Representative Kifowit introduced HB 2627, which would amend the Illinois School Code stating:
“That a student may not be questioned or detained at a school site… without the presence of the student’s parent or guardian, a school social worker, or a licensed mental health professional.”
Corey Walgren’s mom Maureen likes the good intentions the bill has, as it involves a social worker or healthcare professional in a legal interrogation.
“Like never leaving the child alone and then having him sit with a social worker or healthcare professional while he waits, I’d be completely on board with. That’s absolutely kind of just common sense,” said Maureen.
But, she has some reservations about the bill’s wording. She worries the phrase…
“parent or guardian, a school social worker, or a licensed mental health professional…”
…could lead to a social worker or healthcare professional being in the place of a parent in these situations.
Maureen suggests adding more detail to the legislation – an idea the group welcomed.
“And that’s why we’re really open to any sort of amendments, any sort of comments that they have, because they went through this. And their voice and their experience is invaluable to making this bill as good as it can be,” said Iyer.
Maureen also thinks a memorandum of understanding could be a good option for schools as well.
“That is a detailed document that’s in place between the school and the police department that very clearly spells out the role of the school resource officer and what their involvement is in disciplining kids or interrogating kids at school. So specific in fact, it could get down to when parents are contacted.”
The Illinois School Code, The Department of Education, and other federal organizations recommend a memorandum of understanding. But according to Maureen, not a lot of schools have one in place.
Steps that could make all the difference in making students being questioned feel they have support.
“I think the better form for a memorandum of understanding should come from the school board laying out the process in which they’re working with the resource officers in the schools under their jurisdiction,” added Kifowit. “And as with many bills, we start with a small step forward and then we see how that is progressing and how it’s working.”
As the bill is filed in the house, Representative Kifowit and her youth council invite comments and changes to their bill before it’s seen at a subcommittee.
Naperville News 17’s Christine Lena reports.
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