VIENNA — Three years ago, in the wake of a threat of violence at school, Vienna High School Superintendent Joshua Stafford brought the protectors of his community together in one room.
Police officers from the town, the county and the state, plus the Johnson County State’s Attorney, the county probation office and local counselors and therapists, gathered at a big table, alongside the leaders of county elementary and high schools.
Their conversation was open-ended, but Stafford had a clear goal.
“We didn’t want to have to make introductions in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “Everyone in our county does a great job, but they work in silos. We had state police officers and county sheriffs’ deputies that didn’t know each other. We had people from Family Counseling Center (a Southern Illinois mental health provider) that hadn’t met our state’s attorney or our administrators.“
At the end of last school year, the relationships built at those quarterly meetings got their test, when the principal of Vienna High School began receiving threatening text messages from a California phone number.
“We ended up with FBI field agents from Marion in our principal’s offices for two days, not to mention local and state police,” Stafford remembers. “It was all hands on deck.”
An emergency search warrant served to Verizon led officials to a Caller ID-spoofing app developed in California, where they obtained an IP address that traced back to a local student, who was sending the threats from a cellphone.
“That’s a horrible situation to go through, but I was so thankful for the school safety meetings,” Stafford said. “We didn’t have to second guess ourselves about who do we call. Everyone already knew everyone.”
Though Stafford began the meetings to prepare his school for times of crisis, they’ve also become part of a broader approach to student well-being.
“We talk about everything from mental health, to truancy, to discipline,” said Johnson County State’s Attorney Tambra Cain. “It’s all about what can we do to provide extra support for students.”
The meetings are confidential, Stafford and Cain said, allowing the coalition to discuss particular students and the issues they’re facing inside and outside the classroom — to the extent permitted by HIPAA privacy laws.
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“The goal is never ‘getting’ someone,” Stafford said, “but to redirect situations, so our kids and families aren’t ending up in jail or other lifelong detrimental situations. It’s about, ‘If you see something say something.’ But that takes an environment of trust among agencies and individuals, to take down your guard and share information.”
Thanks to the meetings, counselors and therapists at Family Counseling Center quickly become aware of students that school leaders believe could use mental health counseling or a truancy intervention.
“We as a mental health agency can’t disclose information, but they can identify the kids they’d like to see in services, and we can step in and help out before something becomes a big problem,” said Sarah Newman, Family Counseling Center’s behavioral health assistant director of youth services for the southern seven counties. “It’s incredibly helpful because the mental health service aspect is coming together with the educational component.”
The collaborative discussions have also inspired the school to pursue new opportunities, Stafford said, like a grant awarded in partnership with Family Counseling Center to give all high-school students access to a career counselor.
They’ve helped Stafford and local police coordinate a pool of five part-time police officers that together ensure his school always has a resource officer present.
In their next meeting, Sept. 20, the group will discuss Resilient Southern Illinois, a region-wide coalition that trains teachers, administrators and school staff to help students deal with childhood trauma.
“How do we as a school, from bus driver to secretaries, how do we be aware of that trauma that a student might bring to school?” Stafford said. “Our whole drive is to get to the point where we’re being proactive, not reactive, to stop it from ever getting to the point of a young adult feeling so desperate they need to make a threat.”
In the wake of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting that claimed 17 lives in February 2018, a state school safety working group recommended all school districts create interagency threat assessment teams, to work together on potential threats to school security.
Vienna has formed a team to meet that recommendation, Stafford said. In essence, the relationships were already place from the school safety meetings.
“The most important thing in our communities collectively is that we have school,” Stafford said. “We want to make sure that the environment is what it needs to be. And that takes everyone to be involved.”