I-Team: More school security concerns in Illinois than funding

April 24, 2014 (CHICAGO)

But the I-Team has learned that essential security needs at schools across the state are so great, the state doesn't have nearly enough money in a brand new infrastructure safety grant program to meet all of the requests.

Violence, again and again, is tearing apart schools across the country. From the brutal knife attack this month at a Pennsylvania high school to the slaughter of 26 innocent people at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, to 15 years ago this week, the massacre at Columbine. Despite years of attacks and warnings, schools across Illinois still have major security concerns.

"Schools should always assume something bad will happen. They have to operate from that premise. We've been planning for a long time for worst case scenarios," said Jim Conrey, Stevenson High School.

In northwest suburban Lincolnshire, Stevenson High School administrators have the most expensive proposed project. They're asking for more than a million dollars to replace traditional locks and keys with a computer based keycard system that will allow school and classroom access only to approved keycard holders, and lock down areas of the school in case of an active shooter.

"We're asking for a million dollars, there's no doubt about that, but we're talking about a school that is almost a million square feet, so in our mind, we're basically asking for the state to give us a dollar and a quarter per square foot to protect students' lives, in our opinion, students' lives are worth a dollar and a quarter," said Conrey.

"The nature of the threat is changing, we just need to change with it," said Jonathon Monken, Illinois Emergency Management Agency Director

Schools statewide requested more than double the amount of money set aside for emergency management safety upgrade grants- more than 5,100 projects- totaling $54 million. But state officials only have $25 million and say that amount wouldn't even come close to the money needed to retrofit all of the state's aging schools with needed safety upgrades.

"Tens of millions, hundreds of millions, it would be a humongous financial investment to be able to do it. There's no question, if you look at the average age of schools in the state of Illinois, the average age is more than 40 years old, so these are schools that were built at a time where either these things weren't considered as thoroughly as they are now, or it wasn't as prevalent of an issue," said Monken.

Illinois emergency officials are pushing the money towards basic projects such as upgrading door locks and fortifying windows near front entrances. They're hoping that will fix the number one statewide security gap: easy access to school buildings.

"If they can walk up to the front door of their school and they can walk right in in the middle of the school day, unquestioned, unchallenged, they should take that very seriously," said Monken.

"In the past we wanted open access to our buildings and for our parents and community to have access to the schools," said Hughes George, Sunnybrook School District Superintendent.

In south suburban Lansing, Sunnybrook School District is hoping state funds will help pay to remodel the front entrance at the building that serves as their middle school and administrative headquarters.

"Right now people can come into our building, they are asked to come into the main office, but sometimes they don't and they have access to the whole building... You can never prevent someone from doing what they're going to do, but our goal is to minimize their access to the building and absolutely slow them down as much as possible, a few seconds can count with the police arriving and emergency management teams from getting here, so if we can slow that process, keep that carnage to minimal, that's what we're trying to do," said George.

The money paying for this program was originally set aside to make the state's colleges and universities safer, but was diverted after the Sandy Hook grade school attack in Connecticut. Illinois emergency management officials tell the I-Team they plan to award the grants statewide by the end of the month.

School Security Grant Aps
Illinois Emergency Management Agency

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