The Land of Lincoln is set to adopt a new program that awards grant money to schools that hire more mental health professionals and social workers. The Illinois House passed HB 4208, called Safe Schools/Healthy Learning, in a 64-25 vote Friday, April 27.
Portrayed by the media as a law that replaces armed officers in schools with mental health professionals, this Democrat-sponsored bill seems set to zoom through the Senate’s clear Democratic majority. Many decry this measure as pure idiocy. Others praise its early warning and preventative potential. But will HB 4208 actually encourage schools to swap their cops for counsellors?
Ostensibly, the Safe Schools and Healthy Learning Environments program established by HB 4208 was designed to encourage school districts to rely less on police action in response to disciplinary issues that were once – and very likely still should be – handled in house without involving the justice system.
“The goal of this grant program is to promote school safety and healthy learning environments by reducing the reliance on law enforcement to address school disciplinary matters and implement alternative strategies that will better address the full range of students’ intellectual, social, emotional, physical, psychological, and moral developmental needs. To receive a grant under this program, school districts must develop plans for implementing evidence-based and promising practices that are aligned with this goal, including, but not limited to, hiring restorative justice practitioners, school psychologists, social workers, and other mental and behavioral health specialists, providing drug and alcohol treatment services and wraparound services for youth, training for school on alternatives to law enforcement involvement for school-based offenses that include restorative justice approaches, conflict resolution techniques, and expanded use of school support personnel and community-based services, trauma-informed approaches to meeting students’ developmental needs, and addressing the effects of toxic stress.”
Those who oppose – and even some who support – the program claim the true purpose is to further disarm schools by doing away with resource officers. And that seems very likely, as there was originally a provision to exclude schools that employ police officers.
That part was removed from the bill in the face of significant pushback. However, the funds awarded by the program still cannot be used to “increase the use of school-based law enforcement or security personnel.”
Those in favor of completely disarming schools love the idea of having extra counselors to treat disturbed students before they lose it entirely and attack their classmates. The idea, of course, is that if the kids can get professional help early on, they’ll be just fine. Besides, having a police presence didn’t stop the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, so why keep cops around?
There are plenty of skeptics, though, and with good reason. The Parkland, Florida shooter saw mental health professionals and was reported to both the local police and the FBI well in advance of his attack. The officer present at the time of the shooting remained outside. He was ineffective not because armed security is powerless against an active shooter, but because he chose not to act. Opponents to the bill point to other would-be mass murderers who were stopped by school resource officers and wonder how many will die in Illinois schools if cops are removed from campus.
While the initial goal seemed to be the elimination of resource officers in schools, the bill as it exists today doesn’t stop schools from involving the police – whether as full-time resource officers or as needed in response to specific situations. But it does offer financial rewards after more mental health professionals and social workers have been hired without actually increasing the budget before. And where will schools find the money to bring on the additional staff? Well, one obvious answer is to follow the bill sponsor’s apparent intent and swap the cops for counselors.
So no, HB 4208 doesn’t actually stop schools from having or increasing armed security. But it was originally meant to, and in practice, it probably still will.