By Josh Jones
Times Tribune Editor
MADISON COUNTY, IL – On Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, Madison County Regional Office of Education 41 Superintendent of Schools Robert Werden, hosted local school administrators, law enforcement, and community stakeholders to discuss critical issues that involve school safety.
Werden explained that this marked the fourth School Safety Summit of this nature. He said that these summits were started in the wake of the tragic Uvalde, Texas school shooting on May 24, 2022, as a way for law enforcement and educators to get together and communicate.
“The first three summits have mainly been on what we could do to prevent school shootings and those types of activities,” Werden said.
Werden said that the most recent summit shifted on the topics to be addressed.
“This one we are focusing on mental health, drug abuse, internet safety and grooming,” Werden said. “We changed the focus a little bit for this one, because those are also safety things that our schools need to deal with and our law enforcement deals with.”
The summit began with Chestnut Health System’s Director of Prevention and Community Education, Donna Nahlik. Nahlik stressed the importance of shifting our focus to prevention. Nahlik stressed that as a society, while consequences for substance abuse is necessary, getting to the root cause of such behavior is equally important. At Chestnut Health Systems, Donna and her staff focus on preventing overdoses, intervening, and providing resources to adults and at-risk youth. Chestnut’s most recent intervention program supports youth whose parents are substance abusers. Nahlik recommended that all Madison County area schools administer the Illinois Youth Survey bi-annually in an effort to stay factually informed on students’ involvement with substance abuse.
Next, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Casey Bloodworth and Alexandria Burns spoke about internet safety, including grooming, sextortion, and deepfakes. Since 2020, there has been a noticeable uptick in the reporting of these types of crimes. Both attorneys gave numerous examples of how our youth can easily find themselves prey to these types of acts. Attorney Bloodworth also suggested school districts have policy making conversations regarding the use of AI technology in schools.
Lastly, Michelle Denault, creator of “Grooming 101 – A Predator’s Playbook” presented on the seven steps of grooming. Denault stated that every nine minutes a child is sexually assaulted, and one out of every ten of those children who are assaulted are sexually assaulted by a teacher. Denault went on to speak about how society teaches our youth to blindly trust a person’s “title” instead of the individual fulfilling that title. Denault’s playbook serves to bring awareness to all community stakeholders on how to recognize the signs and prevent child grooming.
Werden encouraged all school administrators, law enforcement, and community stakeholders to take the necessary next steps to prevent students from falling victim to such heinous crimes. Our future success as a society depends on our youth, therefore, we must do everything in our power to ensure a safe environment in our schools. Werden would like to thank all four presenters and everyone in attendance for taking the time to help make our schools safer, a news release stated.
“It is good to stay on top and try and be proactive when you are dealing with anything school safety related,” Werden said, later adding. “I want folks to know that our educators, our law enforcement are working together to be proactive and do our best to keep the kids safe,” Werden said.