In the town of Normal, Ill., school administrators and local law enforcement officials are taking steps to ensure that events here live up to the community’s name.
To prevent the kind of violence that has occurred recently in places such as Littleton, Colo., and Springfield, Ore., local officials are teaming up to form a computer network that will keep track of teen-agers who might commit crimes in or out of school.
The network will link authorized users from the Bloomington and Normal police departments, McLean County state’s attorney’s office, the juvenile division of the Illinois Department of County Court Services, the local office of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the junior highs and high schools in District 87 and McLean County Unit 5 school districts.
The idea behind the “safe school shared information system” is to give officials who have dealings with a particular teen a single formalized process to share information so they can see if there is a trend of unsafe or criminal behavior, said Mindy Frazier, information services manager for the town of Normal.
For example, if a police officer responds to a fight among teens over the weekend, principals would know to stay alert for any spillover into the school Monday morning. Some of that type of sharing occurs now, but on a limited basis, Frazier said.
Conversely, when schools report alleged or suspected criminal behavior to police, information from those incidents would be included in the network as well.
Once potential problems are identified, school officials hope to intervene before any outside hostilities manifest themselves on school grounds. Students who have been in trouble outside of school will be called into direct conferences with administrators to talk about problems, or they will be asked to participate in parent-teacher meetings, counseling, or peer intervention.
The idea for the network came out of a brainstorming session at the regional advisory council meeting of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-Southeast (NLECTC-SE). The assembly brought together law enforcement officials and community leaders looking for ways to prevent school violence by nipping instances of violent behavior in the bud.
“With this program, we hope to share information and give schools a heads up to young people who might be predisposed to violence,” said Assistant Chief Gary Speers of the Normal Police Department.
The money for the pilot program was obtained through a grant from NLECTC-SE and the National Institute of Justice. An estimated $36,000 in start-up equipment was needed, and the remaining funds will be used to provide each location with the expertise, equipment, and support needed to tie the system together, Speers said. School officials do not expect upkeep for the program to be very expensive.
The project will create a “virtual private network” that uses encryption and other security mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users can access the network and that the data cannot be intercepted. Members of the network will receive software that allows them to hook into the network’s web server, currently being housed at the Normal City Hall.
Frazier said there are very specific guidelines about what kinds of information can be shared. Private student records cannot be shared without a court order, for example.
McLean County State’s Attorney Charles Reynard said he was “thrilled” to have the system available. In addition to sharing and receiving information via the network, his office will provide the legal research to make sure no information added to the network breaks confidentiality or privacy laws.
Each member of the network will designate one or two individuals to check it regularly for youngsters who have committed an act of violence and alert other members. Normal Community West High School Principal Jerry Crabtree said the two educational deans at his school will be the only employees with access to the highly sensitive information.
“The one feature I really like is the confidentiality aspect,” Crabtree noted. “Only one or two people will have access to the softwareand it’s all protected through passwords.”
Those involved in the pilot project expect some degree of resistance from civil liberties groups regarding the issue of privacy infringement, but note that measures have been taken to ensure the network’s constitutionality. “We put together a list of the types of items we’d like to share [within the network] and ran them past the state’s attorney, who had no problem with the list we presented,” Speers said.
Though there has been a slight decrease in the occurrence of teen violence over the past year, school officials have been busier than ever dealing with a huge increase in threats of violence, Speers said. Added Crabtree, “We’re trying to head off potential problems. The concept just makes sense. This way, we can be proactive rather than reactive.”
McLean County Unit District 5
National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-Southeast