A recent uptick in gang violence locally and the school shooting in Newtown, CT, were on the minds of Evanston aldermen Monday when they voted to add a second police officer at Evanston Township High School.
The officer will join another school resource officer who works full-time on campus during the school year, as part of an intergovernmental agreement between the city and District 202. The agreement also calls for the addition of a full-time career/job coordinator, who will help students who don’t want to go to college to transition directly to the workplace.
“We don’t feel that it’s sufficient to have one officer responsible as the armed presence for the entire building,” ETHS director of safety Sam Pettineo told members of the administration and public works committee, who heard the request before recommending it to the full city council.
Pettineo said there were several factors that made a second school resource officer necessary. The primary issue was the high school’s size, he told Patch later. At 1.2 million square feet, with 3.5 miles of corridors, it’s a lot of area for one officer to oversee—and that could put ETHS at a disadvantage if there were a mass-shooting situation, he said.
Furthermore, he said, there has been a slight increase in gang behavior in the building recently, although he emphasized that there had been no recent fights on school grounds.
“Groups of young men have been positioning themselves in a manner which makes us believe there could be a fight,” he explained later. “We see kids every day, and we know the signs and indicators.”
A particularly troubling incident came in late December, when police arrested an ETHS student off campus who told them he had been carrying a gun in the building.
“I am deeply concerned that we could possibly have an incident in the building that would require the assistance of the police department,” Pettineo told the administration and public works committee.
While ETHS has had a school resource officer for 40 years, the current resource officer is stretched thin dealing with every case involving a high school student in the community—which means he must leave the building fairly frequently for court hearings and investigations, according to Pettineo. That leaves the high school without an armed presence in the building fairly often, he said.
Three recent shooting deaths in Evanston—including the death of 14-year-old Dajae Coleman a few blocks from the high school—were another factor in the decision to request another school resource officer, according to Pettineo. But, he said, he did not believe those shootings were connected to the gang activity in school.
Under the intergovernmental agreement, the school resource officer would begin in February and stay at Evanston Township High School through the end of next school year. After that, the program will be reassessed before school administrators and city council members decide whether to continue it.
Pettineo said he planned to divide the two school resource officers to different areas within the building, emphasizing the importance of building relationships with kids.
“I don’t feel that one resource officer has the ability to network and resource with all of the kids that we have that might be at risk for gang-related behavior or other issues that require a law enforcement presence,” he said.
Ald. Coleen Burrus said she saw the addition of a second police officer as “a proactive measure,” adding that “building relationships with police officers makes a huge difference.”
The administration and planning committee unanimously recommended that the city council approve the addition of a school resource officer. Members of the city council approved the matter without discussion.
Other new safety measures are moving forward at Evanston Township High School as well. According to Chief Richard Eddington, the police department and school district are working to add security cameras to the roof of the building, as well as blue-light phones outside the building. Pettineo said school officials are also meeting with the city about adding more streetlights on Church Street.
“We want a building that’s safe and secure for our students, and [another school resource officer] is just one measure,” he said.