Photo by Yearbook Staff

A wall in the Social Studies wing contains stick figures that represent the victims of gun violence in America. WeGo Global began adding paper squares in September.

WCCHS works to create a safe learning environment for students, staff

October 25, 2022

Across the nation in 2022, there have been a total of 30 school shootings so far. This year, the most significant school shooting was that which occurred in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 people, most between the ages of 9-11, were killed. Two adults aged 44 and 48, were also murdered on May 24. 

Although there have been no shootings or acts of violence at West Chicago Community High School, safety and/or the potential for gun violence is a concern for some students, staff, and community members.

“It’s such a priority because over time, school violence and shootings have been getting worse throughout the years, and we should have better safety,” said Emma Espinoza, a senior.

Safety concerns at WCCHS

School Resource Officer Mike Levato is at work in his office near Entrance B. (Photo by Leslie Fireman)

An incident occurred at the beginning of the school year, in which a student allegedly brought a gun to school and may have displayed the weapon in a bathroom in-campus; according to a statement released by the West Chicago Police Department, authorities were able to “make contact with the juvenile suspect off-campus. The handgun was recovered and the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office was consulted.”

The juvenile has since been charged with several felonies.

“This incident, in isolation, is a devastating situation for everyone involved – students, family, friends, and staff.  When framed in the larger landscape of what is happening in our society, it is a stark indicator of the need for comprehensive services and support from home to neighborhood to school,” wrote Board of Education President Bob Brown in his address to the community. 

The school’s policies regarding handguns, which are strictly prohibited, are printed in the student handbook and available on its website. According to the handbook, the Board of Education has the “authority to impose discipline, including suspension or expulsion, for such behavior” and the ability to expel a student “from school and all school activities for a definite time period not to exceed 2 calendar years in accordance with Board policy.” 

Building changes

Director of Deans, Veronica Jimenez Winton, in her office. (Photo by Leslie Fireman)

Prior to the incident on Sept. 21, Director of Deans Veronica Jimenez Winton, and School Resource Officer Mike Levato, sat down with the Wildcat Chronicle to address school safety and what WCCHS is doing to ensure students are protected from gun violence. 

“I don’t think we have a gun problem in our building, so I don’t really think we need to fix a gun problem. My mentality is how do we keep it this way,” said Jimenez Winton. 

“In the building, we’re doing a pretty good job. We try to do everything that we can. We’re trying to adjust whenever we see something that needs to get fixed, we try to fix that. So everything we do is to try to keep everybody safe in the building. We do our best,” said Levato.

There have been advances this school year in terms of ensuring those inside the building are protected from outside threats. New measures have been put in place to make the school a safer place for students and staff. Some of those efforts were outlined in the conversation with Jimenez and Levato, and others were elaborated on by Dwyer during the Oct. 4 Board of Education meeting. 

“I definitely think that part of our job is to continue to learn, and continue to see what we’re missing, what we could do better. And so, I will always feel like we could be doing more, so every year and every semester, we’re learning and we’re going to continue to do more things to be as best prepared and preventative as we could,” said Jimenez Winton. 

According to Winton and Levato, measures include the use of more security personnel on school grounds and increasing the number of staff. Dwyer confirmed that the number of security guards employed by the school throughout the day increased from five to 15 in a “little bit over a year.

In the mornings, students and visitors may only enter through two doors, B and H. Security guards and administrators are present at both entrances. Cameras have been installed near all the doors.

All visitors’ IDs must be scanned to ensure they are “safe to be here,” Dwyer added.

Call buttons have been placed in all classrooms. The Safe2HelpIL system, as referenced in Dwyer’s previous emails, allows students and parents the ability to report safety concerns as well.

Focus has been placed on “social and emotional well-being” through increased social work and structured den time, Dwyer explained.

Other measures include observing other schools to see what they are doing to not only prevent any incidents from occurring but also to consider different procedures and/or make West Chicago Community High School a safer place. 

“We do lots of training at the police department for situations that involve that kind of thing, and feel pretty confident we can handle that situation as best as possible. As far as being in the school, obviously, no one knows the future, can tell the future, knows exactly when are where something is going to happen, but we’re pretty confident that if something were to happen, we could respond well, and keep everybody as safe as possible,” said Levato.

The blue lights appeared on campus the week of Oct. 24. (Photo by Leslie Fireman)

The administrative team will also participate in further training “so that when we do see signs of distress in a student, we can implement a threat assessment and get them the kind of support they need,” said Dwyer.

A new partnership with Navigate 360 provides opportunities for additional ALICE training for staff at WEGO. The company began a security audit this week. 

“Before I came into this role, the team that did oversee school safety was always looking at what can we do better, what can we do differently. And, with me stepping into this role, and having no background information, I kind of looked at everything as a clean slate, so we’re doing a lot of things this year to keep our students as safe as possible, from having more counselors and social workers that would have good relationships with students so that students don’t ever feel they need to resort to that, or to bring that to school. We want to create an environment that feels safe and secure. Hiring more security, having an SRO in the building, things like that,” said Jimenez Winton.

What has emerged in the last few months is the need to add more ways to communicate with students, guardians, and staff in the event of a safety issue. 

“I think safety has always been such a priority in schools, but our communication is more important than ever because we are more connected and news travels faster,” said Lauren Stewart, Division Head of Language Arts. 

Messages to students and staff are emailed, posted on the school’s website, and published on social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

State-wide efforts

There have been changes in the state of Illinois with regard to gun safety as well. The state now requires buyers to secure a permit prior to purchasing a firearm. Despite Illinois having some strong gun laws, Illinois allows the purchase of assault rifles, including the AR-15. The Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card is required to buy guns and ammunition and must be renewed every 10 years. 

Additionally, people younger than 21 are banned from possessing or owning a gun unless the younger person is “sponsored” by an eligible adult. However, there are ways around some of these laws.

“I personally know people that have bought parts online and built their own guns, so it wouldn’t surprise me if students here do that, or have done that. I hope that their parents are aware of what they’re doing, but whether or not they bring them to school, I can’t really answer that,” said Levato. 

Illinois also recently banned the use of untraceable ghost guns, and the owning and selling of machine guns within the state. The state’s gun permit law also allows individual municipalities, such as Highland Park, to ban assault rifles altogether.

Illinois has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, and is ranked sixth in the nation for its strictness in imposing such laws. There is a law that requires people to get background checks on all gun sales and ordinances that keep domestic abusers from purchasing a gun. And in 2020, the state instituted what is known as “red flag laws” which mean that “if a person is declared a danger, police can temporarily remove all firearms from the possession of the individual in the interest of protecting themselves or others.”

About 1,505 people die by guns on average every year. Many “gun-sense” politicians who are running for a position in the upcoming election on Nov. 8 believe that in order for Illinois to become a “safer state” Illinois must strengthen its Firearm Owners Identification Card (FOID) system to keep firearms away from people that should not own guns.

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