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Illinois high school lock down by police { April 12 2004 }

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GUEST OPINION: TF South Declares code red

Monday, April 12, 2004

- by Lee Enokian, columnist for The Times of Northwest Indiana

OPINION -- Thornton Fractional South High School in Lansing was locked down for over an hour during a police drug search. Drugs in the school? Actually, no. This is the second year in a row no drugs were found.

District 215 superintendent, Dr. Robert K. Wilhite, stated the search was requested by the school board after "watching recent trends in drug abuse." Apparently that drug abuse was not found in TF South. Despite this fact, Wilhite will request at least one building-wide drug search each year to "ensure a safe and secure environment for education." That environment seems to exist already.

Exactly how the lockdown was triggered is in question. TF South students heard Principal Dr. Timothy Kilrea call a "Code Red" over the intercom. Once the call went over the intercom, kids noticed a lot of police around the building. It's unclear which school administrator decided to use the term as part of the building search.

Students know Code Red means an intruder may be in the building and a Columbine type shooting situation could exist. The alert requires classroom doors to be locked, shades drawn and students to gather away from the hallway window.

In a Times news article appearing on Tuesday, Kilrea was quoted as saying, "I made the announcement that this is a drill and no one is in danger." Kilrea and Wilhite both confirmed the statement.

The administration's position is somewhat contrary to the memories of six TF South students, including my own daughter. After sifting through the statements of the interested parties, I was able to determine that there were two announcements. All six students stated that the first message announced a "Code Red". They were assured that the situation was a drill after the second intercom message.

This belief is further substantiated by information provided by Lansing Police Chief Daniel McDevitt. I have been professionally acquainted with McDevitt for 11 years and know him to be a trustworthy individual. He was present at the scene and agreed with Kilrea's statement, but told me he was outside and entered the building a few minutes late. This is understandable since he was responsible for directing police operations. A late entry would coincide with the timeline supplied by the students and indicate he heard the second announcement.

Kilrea's statement was technically true, but misleading at best. The revelation of a potentially misleading statement certainly spreads the shadow of damage control over the whole affair.

There is plausible belief in the idea that a spur of the moment misjudgment prompted the use of the "Code Red" procedure. Wilhite wanted complete secrecy about the impending building search. He asked McDevitt to schedule the search and tell him about it shortly before it was to occur. As a result, Kilrea received approximately five minutes warning and the teachers knew nothing until after the lockdown had begun.

This is a more palatable scenario than the intentional misuse of a safety procedure intended to protect students from a Columbine style attack. I asked Wilhite what he thought, but defended the idea.

"It is in keeping with a safe learning environment," he said.

The misuse of safety procedures is exactly what civil liberties groups have been warning Americans about since the passage of the Patriot Act and other post 9-11 legislation.

While I cannot fault the Lansing Police Department, the conduct of District 215 administrators is highly questionable. US Supreme Court rulings have already decided that building searches like this are legal. Furthermore, I know of no complaints regarding police conduct during this incident. By all accounts, they did their job professionally and left without issue.

Some of the students suspected the alert was a drill, but became concerned when they learned their teachers knew nothing about what was going on. If it was a drill, students reasoned, the teachers would know - wouldn't they? They looked to their teachers for guidance and leadership, but found it hampered by secrecy. Still, many students had mixed reactions and their experiences may negatively affect how they react next time.

If teachers can't be trusted, then why are they entrusted with our children? I contacted American Federation of Teacher's local #683 president, Lee Schmoekel at TF North for a statement.

He abruptly said, "I have no comment" before he hung up the phone.

As the teacher's representative, and ostensibly their spokesperson, this response is wholly unacceptable. A simple statement directing questions to the superintendent would have been preferable to Schmoekel's indignant response. School incidents such as this should be accompanied by a clear and concise answer for every inquiry from parents and the media.

Kilrea, new to the district, was unable to provide the actual text of the "Code Red" policy. Wilhite skirted the issue. Administrators should know a policy of this magnitude by chapter and verse. Somebody should know because it does not appear in the student handbook and parents are given no instruction. Student's learn its meaning through classroom instruction.

Kilrea's letter explaining the situation to parents dramatically minimizes the lockdown by stating, "On Monday, March 29, 2004, Thornton Fractional South was visited by the Lansing Police and the Lansing Canine Unit. As in past years, the purpose of this visit was planned well in advance to conduct a locker and building and grounds search for the purpose of drug prevention."

The lockdown was a little more than a visit. In fact, 16 canine teams from various Illinois and Indiana departments participated in the search. It lasted from about 9:45 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and took approximately 75 minutes out of the children's educational day. Instead of pulling kids away from their studies for over an hour, administrators should worry about school standardized test scores.

With approximately 1,600 students and 85 faculty members at TF South, it's fantastic that no drugs were found. There is one thing Wilhite and I agree on, "I'm proud of the kids."

A Code Red "drill" should be conducted properly and for the correct reasons. The shadow of damage control lays heavily over its present usage

Ultimately, nobody but the District 215 administration will know the truth. Parents and the media may have been misled to cover-up an honest mistake. The abuse of a public trust in the safety procedures that protect our children is not a pleasant alternative.

The whole situation brings additional problems to light. Students and faculty may not take the next "Code Red" seriously because it could just be another lockdown for a police drug search. Like the boy who cried wolf, we don't shout an alarm unless there really is a wolf with the sheep.

[Lee Enokian is a regular columnist for the Illinois edition of the Times Newspapers of Northwest Indiana. Enokian welcomes comments by email at]

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