WCIA-3 Investigates violence and weapons at school: Part 1

CHAMPAIGN COUNTY -- We can lock the doors and install security cameras, but sometimes that doesn't stop violence from happening inside our schools. Conflict can come up among students of any grade level. So we investigated what the biggest issues are across our area.

We contacted school districts in east central Illinois individually. Those we spoke with have varying levels of what they consider violent. But all say making sure students are safe is a top priority.

"If something comes up, you have to deal with it and I think we do that pretty fairly," said Barb Thompson.

Thompson has been the superintendent with the Fisher School Ddistrict for eight years. She said she counts her blessings because most of the time, her students get along.

"Pretty safe community with low crime and that carries over into our school district," said Thompson.

Thompson's district hasn't had any reports of violence or weapons during the past three years. Many other schools said the same.

Tuscola's superintendent Michael Smith said it simply, "We haven't had any of these."

And Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's superintendent Anthony Galindo told us, "We have been fortunate to not have these occurrences."

But even so, all districts have to report statistics on violence and weapons to the state every year.

"They want to know what's going on in the schools and it's also important from the community's perspective to know just how safe our schools are," said Matt Vanover, who works with the Illinois State Board of Education.

When it comes to weapons, the most common issue was students bringing pocket knives to class. But that's not all.

For example, Sangamon Valley District superintendent Ernie Fowler told us they found nun-chucks in a student's car once. And Oakland superintendent Lance Landeck reported finding air guns in a student's car. In most of these cases, school leaders said the weapons weren't used.

"If an incident occurs or if a student brings a certain type of weapon, it has to be reported to the State Board of Education so it can be reported to the state police," said Vanover.

When we asked about violence, we let schools tell us where they drew the line. Some said it's force. But other districts said even name-calling counts in their books.

"You have to take everything seriously," said Charleston superintendent Jim Littleford. "You need to address everything that you possibly can."

Because of those standards, schools like Charleston may look dangerous on paper with hundreds of reports of violence each year. But Littleford said they're sticking with their zero-tolerance policy.

"People need to treat other people with respect and that starts with children," said Littleford.

As you may expect, bigger schools typically had more to talk about. Decatur district leaders reported more than 1,800 physical confrontations in some years. Champaign schools averaged around 700. Neither of those district's superintendents wanted to speak with us on camera. 
But Champaign Centennial High School's school resource officer gave us a little insight about what he sees in his hallways.

"We have a lot more variety of personalities and cultures that are trying to mix and get along so I think that's probably why we have more fights and more other issues than maybe a smaller town," said SRO Ed Wachala.

But even so, he said the numbers can be deceiving.

"For example, two kids are playing basketball on the playground at a grade school, they get into a fight over it and does that count as a violent act in this school? I don't know," said Wachala.

State leaders said our districts are pretty safe. But they want to make sure students know when they come to school, they need to play by the rules.

"I wouldn't say violence is prevalent in the schools," said Vanover. "I wouldn't say it is a huge problem. I would say that it is an important problem that needs to be addressed swiftly."

One more thing that could impact the numbers. Sometimes incidents are logged once for each person involved. So if there was a fight between three or four different students, those would all be counted separately.

On Wednesday night, we'll take a look at how some districts are stepping outside the schools to make sure students are safe.

Blank entries indicate districts which never responded to our requests.
Question marks indicate incomplete information sent by districts.

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