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Highland Park Schools Have Tense Debate Over Metal Detectors

Parents and students supporting the the implementation of metal detectors and armed security at Township High School District 113 clashed with protesters this week, and a survey had mixed results.

(TNS) — Intense discussions around school security in Highland Park escalated Tuesday night as Township District 113′s school board meeting drew roughly 20 parents and others calling for the implementation of metal detectors and armed security, student organizers opposed to those plans and plenty of police and private security.

Protesters arrived two hours before the meeting in neon “Secure Our Schools” shirts and held signs with phrases like “Metal Detectors Now” on the sidewalk along Park Avenue West outside the headquarters of District 113, which covers Highland Park, Highwood and Deerfield.

Among the protesters was Highland Park High School freshman Lily Dahms, who recalled being in hard lockdown at school on April 4, and explained that she believes the positives of installing metal detectors outweigh the negatives.

“The only opposing argument is that, ‘Oh, it’ll feel like jail in school,’” Dahms said. “But when you walk into Disneyland, does it feel like a jail? Also, what’s better, a jail or a coffin?”

Inside the building, tensions simmered further, echoing the tenor of recent District 113 board meetings that have featured emotional public comments and a steady stream of criticism for district officials by proponents of metal detectors and armed security.

Meeting attendees were screened by private security with handheld metal detector wands and bags were searched upon entry, a decision district officials said they made after receiving reports that individuals planning to attend the meeting may bring firearms to show it would be easy to bring a weapon to school.

At least three officers from the Highland Park police department were present, as well as three security officers who appeared to be unarmed. The head security officer declined to identify himself or answer questions about the altered security for the meeting.

The board and crowd listened to a presentation from research firm Public Opinion Strategies about responses to a survey the district paid the firm to conduct, as well as a presentation on school security from Paul Timm of Itasca-based security consultant, Allegion.

Eight different survey questions with different wording about metal detectors produced mixed results that some attendees said was confusing, and others blasted as biased and costly.

Board President Dan Struck called the security issue “really hard” and “challenging,” adding that the survey results, “illustrated the tension that is at work with these issues.”

“It’s hard to find the right balance and the right fix because opinions are all over the place,” Struck said. “But certainly, people care about this issue, that came through in the survey.”

A consultant from Public Opinion Strategies said the survey, which was sent out via text message and was met with significant confusion from locals who reported not receiving it, got 1,286 respondents, including 221 students, 225 staff members and 840 parents or guardians.

A slight majority of respondents, 55 percent, said they were strongly or somewhat opposed to installing metal detectors “that require people to remove belts and empty their pockets” similar to airports such as O’Hare, compared to 45 percent who are strongly or slightly in favor.

But when the wording of questions shifted, like one question which alluded to possible extracurricular spending cuts, saw 60 percent of respondents say they were strongly or somewhat opposed, compared to 40 percent strongly or somewhat in favor.

Nearly half of student and staff respondents believed that adding metal detectors would “affect the atmosphere of the school” negatively. To another question about the installation of “weapons detection systems” that allow for faster entry, similar to the systems used at Wrigley Field and Soldier Field in Chicago, 77 percent of respondents said they were either strongly or somewhat in favor.


Enrique Perez, an outspoken advocate for metal detectors and armed security, said that his daughter “felt very safe” recently at the Ravinia graduation ceremony because of the metal detectors.

“You guys had this place locked down so much that, how could you not help but feel safe?” he asked the board during his public comment.

Perez, who organized the protest with other District 113 parents Jenny Harjung and Suzi Wahl, said the parents group wants an “all-of-the-above approach” to security.

“In a normal, reasonable world, I would have expected armed guards and metal detectors, particularly metal detectors, to not be a big deal because they are everywhere. Look at (the graduation ceremonies) at Ravinia, cops and metal detectors, and look how peaceful it was,” Perez said, pointing to a photo of Wahl walking through metal detectors at the recent graduation ceremony.

Perez said protesters were hoping to partner with a security company to demonstrate how metal detectors could be used on site before the meeting, but that plan did not work out.

The protest also drew a couple of vocal gun rights supporters, including Lake County resident Abraham Avalos, who said “the devil is in the details” when it comes to school security.

“As a gun owner, I support the measure of armed security guards,” Avalos said. “When we talk about having guns in sensitive places, I do believe it needs to be regulated to a certain point. If that includes armed security guards, whether it’s off-duty police or a security company that does armed security, yeah, I’m all for that.

Harjung said the safety of children in school should not be “political,” but that the debate on the matter has been made political by stakeholders.

“I feel like you have a lot of people on one hand that want to ban assault rifles and have stricter gun laws, and then you have people that want to make their school safer by implementing more armed security and weapons detection systems,” Harjung said. “I feel like it’s either one side or the other, but for me, they’re not mutually exclusive.”

The community division was evident before the meeting. As Harjung gave an interview, a passing car honked its horn loudly and was greeted with cheers by protesters, until they realized the driver was sternly shaking their head, seemingly in disapproval.

Tensions flared several times throughout the meeting, too, including when a group of students opposed to protesters’ demands followed their sequence of speakers.

Highland Park High School student Anna Neblo said that the installation of metal detectors would cause regular trauma for many students and staff as they come into school each day, and that “no student should feel targeted or persecuted simply for walking through the doors.”

“If the district wants to invest that money in violence prevention in our community I applaud them, but respectfully encourage that they seek the root of the issue, not the fruit of it,” Neblo said.

As Neblo spoke, attendee Sheldon Langer interrupted, calling her “woke,” which earned a stern talking to from Struck, who urged him to let Neblo continue speaking.

As Langer and other protesters exited the meeting toward the night’s end, Langer again called the students “woke,” which caused a further stir.

Seconds later, District 113 director of operations and facilities Brian Ahmer could be heard asking Highland Park police to follow the protesters in favor of metal detectors, who largely left at once, out to the parking lot.

One of the students in the group, Jacob Rolfe, said in a text message that police escorted the students to their rides after the larger group exited.

Rolfe said that protesters’ “lack of maturity and sensitivity overshadowed their thoughts and opinions,” particularly when Langer quipped during the meeting that the students were “woke.”

“While it is true that they raised valid concerns about the expenditures on the survey and security consultation, their actions seemed to lack genuine support for us, the students,” Rolfe said. “This was particularly evident when they resorted to heckling us, leading to us having police escort us out of the building.”

He said the survey results were slightly confusing, though he appreciated the precise nature of the questions, and noted that far fewer students were surveyed than parents.

“Overall, the citizens who protested made me realize the sad nature of this debate, the excessive polarization,” Rolfe said. “Insulting board members and children is not effective in making change (the very children they are ‘fighting to protect’). I hope the board places more emphasis on student voices in the future.”


Struck said he was he could not recall exactly how much the survey cost the district, and did not give a timeline for reaching a decision on metal detectors.

He emphasized that board members have now collectively “read just about every piece of guidance” published about school security and metal detection systems in schools, while also noting that the board is in the process of hiring a head of security who is expected to carry a firearm on school grounds.

When approached for comment after the meeting, board member Jodi Shapira said board policy allows only the board president to speak about board matters.

The security consultant, Timm, said he has conducted about 2,000 school safety assessments in his career. He answered questions from the board about evolving metal and weapons detection technology, and what works and what the benefits and drawbacks are when it comes to school districts that deploy metal detecting devices.

Timm refrained from making a public recommendation on the matter through a question-and-answer session, and expanded on some of the factors that make using metal detection systems in schools complicated beyond the financials.

“Sometimes (a metal detector is) identifying metals that are coming through and if the student says it was a Chromebook (laptop), there was no secondary screening,” Timm said. “All of those decisions have to be made. Who is doing the secondary searching? All of the rest becomes complex.”

It is unclear if Timm provided a clear recommendation to board members during a closed session before the open meeting began.

He added that he believes educating people about security is “the remedy for ignorance, and I don’t use ignorance as a negative term.”

District 113 Superintendent Bruce Law had to leave before the meeting due to a family emergency, according to a district spokesperson.

As she concluded her public comment, Neblo predicted that further security measures might create inequities within the student body.

“I predict that these systems will be applied differentially across the student body in ways that do not promote the overall safety of our community, that serve to stigmatize and burden students unjustly,” Neblo added. “I don’t want to live and go to school in a community that creates invidious distinctions between us.”

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