CHICAGO - Security is top of mind as students in Chicago and the suburbs return to class, and there is a new Illinois law requiring all districts to have a plan to deal with threats.
Sometimes there are warning signs.
"They are posting pictures of themselves with weapons. They are bringing weapons to school and showing it to their friends," said Dr. Lina Alathari, the Chief of the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center.
Here are some things to look for, if you know how.
"They are talking to their friends about either wanting to bomb the school or shoot up the school," Dr. Alathari said.
The National Threat Assessment Center educates teachers and police officers on how to detect those red flags.
"We want to make sure the public and specifically school communities have the information that they need … to know how to identify a student who might be exhibiting concerning behavior," Dr. Alathari said.
The chief of the center, Dr. Alathari, says they analyze targeted violence in all forms, from shootings in schools to nightclubs.
They share those findings in an annual report and at training sessions locally and nationwide.
"These students that target schools or plan to carry out an attack against a school engage in concerning behavior that elicited concern in those around them," Dr. Alathari said. "And they also – majority of them – communicated their intention to carry out an attack."
So, if school shooters are posting their plans ahead of time, does anyone see them? Or are they being ignored?
"They wait to see if a student says something. And then they’ll look at the threat – oh, he’s just messing around … and they make the determination," said Rich Wistocki. "That’s why I said, on any threat, we must compare to Parkland."
Wistocki is a retired Naperville computer crimes detective and now he travels the country training school leaders on how to investigate cyber school threats. He says educators have several options.
Kids can download the "Stop It" app, which is a way to anonymously report suspicious behavior to school leaders.
Or schools can use a software program, like "Lightspeed Systems," which monitors what kids are searching online.
"If its self-harm, cyberbullying, sexting, sextortion, drugs, an alert will pop up," Wistocki said. "A real person reads that and goes to the phone tree of the school and reports it to them."
As you may have guessed, many schools opt not to use a software monitoring program.
For some, Wistocki says it comes down to money while others have a different reason.
"Here’s what I’ve learned from working with some of these companies," Wistocki said. "The school board has attorney firms that may or may not have told them, ‘hey, you get this alert system, don’t turn it on because if we don’t know the information, we can’t be liable for it.’"
In August 2019, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill amending the "School Safety Drill Act" making it mandatory for all districts to have threat assessment plans and teams in place. But that was never enforced until now.
Per law, at the start of this school year, each district’s assessment team should be in place and include mental health professionals and police officers.
"Historically, it’s supposed to be a cush job but it is far from that," Wistocki said.
Wistocki is talking about school resource officers, who play a vital role on threat assessment teams.
School resource officers in Illinois must go through a 40-hour class and be certified through the state.
Wistocki has trained thousands of SROs on what to do when a school threat arises.
"We do four search warrants. We do a search warrant on their house for weapons. We do a search warrant on their home computer that they game on. We search their cellphones and we search their social media … to see who they are talking to and for what," Wistocki said.
Typically, the first line of defense when a threat occurs is the SRO.
"When there’s a tragedy within the country, they seem to spike quite largely," said Plainfield Police Sgt. Colin Mulacek.
Many districts have assigned SROs to high schools and roaming SROs at elementary and middle school campuses, and after so many tragedies, they are trained to investigate the smallest of threats.
School resource officers suggest parents talk to your kids about not "kidding around" online.
"Because anything that is said on social media or anything that we hear, we’re going to investigate fully and that student could be criminally charged and we don’t want to see that happen," said Aurora Police School Resource Officer Jay Leonardi.
While school resource officers play an important role in handling school threats, Illinois schools are not required to have one.
Coming up Wednesday night, in our final segment of "Students Under Fire," we'll take you inside an active shooter drill at a local school to show you how some police departments train to respond to this type of threat.