A little more than a month after a mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, schools are gearing up for the new academic year. Today, Reset talked to Michael Lubelfeld, the superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, to find out what he’s doing to ensure schools are safe, and students and staff are supported as they return to classrooms.
[The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the extended interview by hitting the red ‘listen’ button above.]
Sasha-Ann Simons: Your district is going back to class in just a few weeks. How are you feeling about the start of the school year?
Michael Lubelfeld: I’m very excited about the start of the school year. Each year, we get a do-over in public education and we have a chance to give everyone the absolute best opportunities each year. Obviously, my heart goes out to everybody impacted by the Fourth of July shooting incident in Highland Park. Every victim had a tie to the Highland Park school system and to our city of Highland Park and Highwood. My heart goes out, my condolences go out, and my thoughts and prayers go out.
SAS: Let’s start going through this memo that you sent out to district families. In one part, you stressed the desire to create a ‘predictable school environment.’ How can you do that in the midst of so much unknown?
ML: We align our safety recommendations and actions to the Illinois Terrorism Task Force School Safety Group. And I’m sorry we even have to use words like that. But after Parkland in 2018, the Illinois Terrorism Task Force got together and made recommendations for people like myself that involved behavioral threat assessment, hardening or securing of facilities protocols, and response protocols in schools.
We also upped the ante with secure entry vestibules. We’re standardizing how you get in. We’re standardizing a bit more assertive Hi, how are you? Can I help you? Why are you here? protocols. We’re completing another comprehensive safety and security audit with a school security expert firm, and I’ve brought their consultants on ground literally today and last week and the week prior. In addition, we’re working with the Department of Justice Office of Victim Support specifically to get guidance on how to function as a public school system after a mass violence incident.
SAS: You talked about the different precautions and safeguards that’ll be put in place. I wonder how it’ll feel walking the halls for the kids. Is it going to feel like they’re in jail? Is it going to be that militant?
ML: No, Sasha, and I’m glad you asked. First of all, we ran summer school July 5. It was a huge decision to make. We ran summer school, we had extra personnel on staff, extra counseling personnel on staff. We met with the teachers and staff prior … we ran a school of more than 500 kids in July after this mass shooting to make the students realize school was still a safe and joyous place.
Going forward this year, you’re going to see things like bollards — either planters or other things that are somewhat conspicuous just as a gesture to make sure a vehicle couldn’t enter into the school. You always weren’t able to be buzzed into the building itself, but the vestibule was open. Not anymore. Now, that’s not like a prison — that’s just like a school with a bit more enhancements in terms of security. In addition, a lot of the actions are internal. We’re looking at door-locking mechanisms that have sensors and alarms. Those are not really visible to the public but they’re going to be real visible to personnel, meaning that if you prop a door open we’re going to get an alarm. Are we investigating and researching weapon’s detections systems and things like that? Yes. Are we going to be planning to implement them immediately? I don’t believe so, but I have another special board meeting Thursday and everything’s on the table.
SAS: Let’s dig in, superintendent, to the steps you’re taking to address students’ mental health. You’re spending a lot of resources on this.
ML: We are. The students’ mental health is absolutely and unequivocally the most important health we have. Learning cannot take place until or unless students are feeling safe, and our teachers too. We like to say that we Maslow before Bloom, referring to Abraham Maslow’s psychological needs theories versus Benjamin Bloom’s cognitive needs. We have things in place called Second Step, it’s a social-emotional curriculum. We have Calm Classroom, where we teach mindfulness. We have something called “Sown to Grow,” which is going to be a weekly, regular check-in: How are you feeling? How are you doing? How did you like the lesson? We have increased our training of crisis prevention. We also do what’s called a universal screener. That means we give every child a test on their mental health: How do you feel? Are there threat indicators? Does someone need more help? And we’ve got the resources and the trained personnel inside and outside to help.