Schools, cops trade student information

BY JOSEPH BUSTOS SVN REPORTER jbustos@svnmail.com In the past, when a child ran afoul of the law, it was assumed the case file would end up on a judge's bench, and not necessarily a school administrator's desk. However, local police and school districts are increasingly trading information about juveniles through the use of intergovernmental
agreements. It's a move that concerns proponents of civil liberties who worry schools may become a pipeline to the juvenile system. "Once information sharing starts, there are no breaks and the school becomes an adjunct of the police department," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. From the police's perspective, the agreements arm school administrators with the information to keep students safe. "The problem we run into is we arrest students for violent (crimes), drugs or weapons and school is not getting that type of information," said Dixon Police Sgt. Troy Morse, who helped write the agreement that has been in place for seven years between his department and Dixon Public Schools. "(We) were worried of violent acts spilling over into the school and the safety of students and staff on site." How they work In these reciprocal agreements, police notify the school when a student is arrested off campus during free time. Likewise, if a student commits a criminal offense while on campus or at a school-sponsored activity, then the school agrees to notify police. Although the wording in the agreements may vary from school district to school district, they follow a general pattern. "The crime has to be something that could affect how the school operates, whether it (is) drugs or violence," Morse said. The agreements do not, however, open a student's complete criminal history to school officials. They only allow the school district to receive information about an immediate arrest. It is up to the school to determine if a pattern is forming and how to handle it, Morse said. Nor do the agreements mean the entire school faculty will be alerted to an arrest. These types of agreements require the school district to designate at least one person for the police to notify in case of an arrest. The designated person may notify another appropriate administrator. For instance, if the arrest was in violation of an athletic participation contract the designated person may tell the school's athletic director ; however, the information cannot be shared with teachers, counselors or other staff members, and the off-campus arrest cannot lead to suspensions from school, said DHS Principal Mike Grady. For students who are younger than 17-years-old, state law only allows police departments to tell school districts about arrests involve weapons, violent crimes or controlled substances violations, including marijuana and methamphetamines. Local agreements When Morrison Unit School District signed into its agreement with local police in August, it was after seven years of consideration, said Superintendent Jody Ware. "We need to know if a student has access to a weapon and has a potential of bringing the (weapon) in the school environment," Ware said. Sterling Schools and Sterling Police entered into a similar agreement in October. In the past, Sterling police shared information with the Sterling Schools district, but only informally - the reporting wasn't consistent, and often, the district discovered violations through word of mouth, Superintendent Wil Booker said. That means there have been situations where two students have been arrested on the same offense, such as underage drinking, and only one was punished. Enforcing the rules equally was the primary reason the administration wanted to have the agreement in place, Booker said. Last month, the Rock Falls High School board voted to send proposals to six law enforcement agencies about sharing information on criminal offenses. The school is waiting for the Rock Falls and Sterling Police Departments, and the sheriffs and state's attorneys of Whiteside and Lee counties to sign on. RFHS Superintendent Jane Eichman decided to include Lee County law enforcement agencies because some of the school's students live in Lee County. She included Sterling because of the close proximity to the city. Eichman, who is in her first year at the high school, wants formal agreements in place to prevent confusion over what information the agencies can share. Although it does not yet have an agreement, the Rock Falls Police Department shares information with the high school on an informal basis. "We look over the arrests over the week, (and) if it's something the high school needs to be aware of, we give them that information," Chief Beto Perez said. The proposed Rock Falls agreement also would allow the school to release attendance or truancy records to the police if doing so will shed light on the student's situation, Eichman said. "The intent is not to be flagrant about things," she said. "It's not like the police department has access (to everything), and has (control) of the entire building." Too much information? That is exactly what has the ACLU bothered about information trades between schools and police. The ACLU fears that the school district may lose focus on educating students and become an extension of the police department because of the type of private information the school and the police department could potentially have access to. "Once information sharing starts, there are no breaks," Yohnka said. The ACLU believes there is no need for this type of formal agreement to be in place. If a student is arrested, and the police feel there is a threat posed, the police department should informally notify the school, Yohnka said. "I think again it boils down to schools and administrators having relationships where they could talk to students (without an agreement). (It's) knowing enough of when to ask a student what's going on and play it out in a way where you don't have to get information from the police," Yohnka said. "The fear is information (students) share with teachers could end up in the hands of the police and break down the wall of trust between teachers and students." The development of a student-teacher relationship in which the student feels comfortable enough to go to his teacher is something that develops over time spent with one another. When Dolph Ricks, a Reagan Middle School P.E. Teacher, coached baseball at the DHS, he would spend more time with those students on the baseball team because of the long afterschool practices and bus rides to away games. "You definitely get to know the kids a lot more. You spend a lot more time with them," said Ricks, who still maintains friendships with many of his former athletes. The role of teachers in schools has changed over the years, Ricks said, since they are sometimes called to be counselors as well. "I think in isolated cases and extreme cases, if there is something that could happen to a child, we need to let the proper authorities know," Ricks said. "I just feel it's (another) aspect of our job. It's our job as adults to protect children where ever you are." Like coaches, teachers involved in extracurricular activities with students may form more open friendships than a regular class setting allows. "I say the primary relationship is teachers are instructors, but I don't want it to mean teachers only decimate information" because they can influence lives, said Donna Spencer, who has taught at Sterling High School since 1985. "In a lab environment and extracurricular activities, you see students in a different way and they see you in a different way. "You have to keep students' trust, but you need to keep students' well being in mind. You have to you use your judgment: 'Do I have the skills to handle this, or do I have to find someone else,'" like an administrator, a counselor or a priest, Spencer said. According to the Students Records Act, the only way a school district can release any information from a student's record is if a parent or student give permission, there is some type of court order, it is being used for a research or statistical research (as long as the names of students are not identified), or the police department needs information before a court judgment is made. "We would only want information pertaining to the particular offense committed," Sterling Police Chief Ron Pottoff said. Yohnka believes the agreements became popular following the Columbine High School shooting in April 1999. "I think nobody has any objection ... if there is something that is potentially dangerous happening with a student spilling over into the school; The school would need to know about it to address it," Yohnka said. "(Although) it seems to extend the school's reach of concern from the things that take place in school to things that take place outside of school." Many parents are unsure how the feel on these agreements and need to know more about these agreements before they could form opinions on them. "I don't know, I'm big on the right to privacy," said Anne Welch, parent of a Challand Middle School seventh-grader. However, Welch did think it's important for the schools to know about abuse or violent crimes, she said. Reach Joseph Bustos at 625-3600, 284-2222 or (800) 798-4085, ext. 529.