Illinois lawmakers hope to curb school violence

Published: Nov. 17, 2022 at 7:00 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - The Illinois House Public Safety and Violence Prevention Task Force hopes to address violence in schools next year. Some lawmakers and education leaders said Thursday that there are frequently violent situations in schools that go underreported, particularly when compared with school shootings that receive national attention.

The Illinois Education Association explained there has been an increase in assaults and threats to school personnel since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. IEA officials said that 6% of teachers reported they had been physically attacked by students prior to the pandemic. A recent IEA study found that 23% of staff have reported incidents of physical violence from students during the pandemic and 18% of social workers reported being attacked as well.

IEA members have reported seeing severe behavioral issues in the classroom and most administrators said there is nothing they can do. Experts noted that most school districts lack threat assessment teams the state already requires.

“You can’t find a social worker in this district. What’s plan B,” asked Sean Denney, the IEA government relations director. “Can we bring someone in online? Is there another way we can bring those services in the meantime, until we get someone to come into the school?”

Denney said most school districts have teams in place who are being proactive about threat assessments. However, he feels that schools may need some cultural changes to get to a place where threat assessment protocols become a regular option to address violence.

Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) is a former history teacher who experienced school violence firsthand. Ford teachers could have better training to address trauma and prevent violence in classrooms, but he also argued that administrators should support their staff more to better address these situations.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers said schools aren’t always equipped to address all the needs students have. IFT Legislative Director Cynthia Riseman Lund said no one can ignore the effects of the pandemic on students and staff. She noted that COVID-19 has challenged the physical health, mental health, and financial needs of many people. Riseman Lund also said underlying socioeconomic issues in neighborhoods perpetuate violence and poverty for students.

The Illinois Association of School Social Workers said violence starts in early childhood. Tonya Edwards feels that school administrators need to try to keep students in school so they can learn how to resolve conflicts instead of resorting to suspension or expulsion.

“We already have a problem in society,” Edwards said. “But if we don’t deal with those students now, the societal problem increases and gets worse because they still haven’t learned how to deal with their conflict.”

Edwards said she is working with Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and the ACLU of Illinois to increase bullying prevention. She also hopes lawmakers can address the shortage of mental health professionals and social workers in schools. Edwards stressed that schools need qualified school social workers that understand school code, different labels of disability, and school law.

“If every district or building could have a qualified social worker to work with the staff, that hopefully gives students the support that they need,” Edwards said.

Ford said lawmakers should be ensuring school districts can receive grants to address violence and provide training to personnel and students.

“I’ll be a real supporter based on today’s hearing for more funding for mental and behavioral health in schools and violence prevention measures that are evidence-based,” Ford said.

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