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Sheriff candidate: Arm guards in schools

WOODSTOCK – One candidate for McHenry County sheriff wants to put armed guards in all schools, although the plan has its detractors.

Jim Harrison outlines his plan, called “Shield Our Students,” on his election website.

Harrison wants every school, including private ones, staffed by an armed officer each school day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The program calls for pooling all state-certified law enforcement officers in the county, current and retired, and compiling a list of those interested in working part-time during off-duty hours.

“The societal problem is running amok and to stick your head in the sand and pretend it’s never going to happen is to ignore what happened in DeKalb,” said Harrison, referring to the Feb. 14, 2008, shooting at Northern Illinois University that left five students dead.

That was a college, but the principle is the same in that school security is inadequate, Harrison said.

Many local schools do have officers in schools regularly – some full time – but Harrison said his program calls for more than a liaison role.

“Certainly any police presence in the school is helpful to perhaps make someone think twice about their plan, but I think there’s nothing quite as effective as having a policeman right there up front,” he said. “They’re not there to be a hall monitor. The position is there to protect.”

Harrison said funding for his plan could come from school districts, municipalities and the county, shared via intergovernmental agreements. He also proposes seeking state and federal grants, such as from the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Because part-time officers would be used, there wouldn’t be overtime rates or benefits, Harrison said.

“Funding a community endeavor like the ‘Shield Our Students’ program would require a conscious re-prioritization of the values that are most important to us as a community,” Harrison said. “In my opinion, no priority could be more important than protecting our schoolchildren from potential threats of violence and armed violence.”

Leslie Schermerhorn, McHenry County regional superintendent of schools, said she had several concerns about such a program, namely cost and proper training for the officers.

She also worries about the message to students that if there’s a need for an armed guard, school isn’t a safe place.

In reality, schools still are one of the safest places for a student to be, she said.

Schermerhorn spoke with Harrison and said she would work with whoever is sheriff, but she said the decision to have an armed police officer in all schools would be made by individual school districts.

Undersheriff Andrew Zinke, who also is running for sheriff, said the Sandy Hook shooting in Newton, Conn., heightened the national debate over school safety.

He said Harrison’s plan was “political grandstanding” and “not a well-thought-out idea.”

“I do not believe the sheriff should dictate to our local police chiefs, educators or municipalities,” Zinke said. “We are professional partners in the community.”

Bill Prim, another candidate for sheriff, said he’s not opposed to the idea of armed guards in schools, but he sees Harrison’s plan as cost-prohibitive.

“I do think it’s a great idea to at least initiate the conversations with the school districts throughout the county,” Prim said. “I don’t necessarily subscribe to his plan in total.”

Algonquin Police Chief Russell Laine said Harrison’s program is an oversimplification of the problem. One officer assigned to cover a school with 2,000 students won’t make a significant difference, he said.

Laine said there needs to be more understanding and a better ability to assess risks ahead of an incident, and schools are making efforts toward sharing that information.

“I don’t think that just putting a police officer into a school is going to make that necessarily a safer environment,” Laine said.

“It might provide a false sense of security instead of tackling the real problems.”

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