As students return to classrooms, school administrators nationwide face a harsh reality that campus safety and security must be prioritized.
In the wake of recent mass shootings, including at a school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 and during a parade in nearby Highland Park on July 4, New Trier High School Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally provided an overview to the board of education on Monday, Aug. 22, on what the district is doing to keep its students and staff members safe.
Sally said the overview would not include every detail of the school’s safety plan, as certain details would not be appropriate to share publicly, but he did say the district takes a four-layered approach to prevention, safety and security. It is: connection, support and prevention; physical safety measures and daily procedures; community partners; and emergency procedures and readiness.
Of those four categories, Sally emphasized connection, support and prevention, calling it the “most important,” with the highest priority being connections. In particular, the district is focused on “building strong relationships.”
“Our efforts over these past few years in our strategic plan has been to have a culture of belonging,” he said. “To ensure that every student feels like they belong at New Trier.”
That’s done through multiple methods, including the adviser program, extracurricular activities, student clubs and groups, and access to social work and mental health services, both within New Trier and in the community.
Pages on the school’s website provide links to resources for students and the community, and Sally said it is important to raise awareness of that information – not just among students and staff, but community members as well.
Prevention is another component of the school’s safety plan, with a focus on preventing harm to one’s self and other students.
“This is where we put a lot of our resources,” Sally said.
The prevention piece includes TrevTips, an anonymous reporting tool for bullying and wellbeing concerns that can be found on the website. But Sally stressed this is one resource that, while checked regularly, is not monitored 24/7.
He emphasized the phrase “See Something, Say Something” during his presentation, and said it applies to students, staff and families.
Additionally, the New Trier Parents Association, a volunteer organization made up of New Trier families, offers programming throughout the year to raise awareness of different issues that impact teens.
“We’re looking at how we continue to build awareness on the signs of a healthy teen, signs of suicide, and the important need to reduce access to lethal means,” Sally said, “and that includes secure gun storage, that includes access to prescription drugs, it can include access to motor vehicles, and certainly there is a role of substance abuse that we want to make sure that our families are aware of when we have students that are in crisis.”
Several parents during the meeting brought up the importance of educating parents on safe gun storage. All five community members who spoke, which included four members of Moms Demand Action, spoke about gun violence, with some offering statistics on teenagerss and guns and some encouraging the board to open up conversations on guns.
Besides providing resources for the community and fostering a culture of belonging, Sally highlighted other safety measures the school is taking. This includes partnerships with local public safety agencies, such as police and fire departments in Winnetka and Northfield, and mental health organizations including The Family Institute at Northwestern University and The Josselyn Center.
Physical safety measures Sally mentioned include limited access to the buildings with security personnel at each entrance, video surveillance in hallways, a school resource officer on both campuses and electronic warning systems at entryways, among other things.
New Trier also has annual emergency drills, which include a yearly “emergency awareness day” when safety procedures are reviewed with students, and a communications system in case of an emergency.
Sally also said procedures are regularly reviewed for improvement.
“We are well-prepared, but we are staying vigilant,” he said. “It’s important for us to be sure we continually look at what we are doing as a school to keep kids safe.”
Board members encouraged the district to make sure all associated with the school are aware of the community resources and to be sure the links to those resources are prominently displayed on the school’s website. Sally noted that all the links to available services he mentioned are on the district’s homepage.
Board Vice President Jean Hahn praised New Trier’s “intentionality” with how it works with students and keeping them safe, and how procedures evolve.
“Like all things at New Trier, we never think something is done and dusted off and move on to the next thing,” she said. “It’s constantly being looked at and safety is no exception to that.”
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.