PPS directors decry Texas school shooting, as Peoria community leaders aim to curb gun violence
Demario Boone didn’t hesitate when asked to describe his immediate reaction to Tuesday’s attack at an elementary school in Texas that killed 19 students and two teachers.
“Brokenhearted, anytime there's a school shooting or we lose children,” said Boone, the Director of School Safety for Peoria Public Schools. “But it really just made us steadfast in making sure that we're proactive to make sure it doesn't happen again.”
For Derrick Booth, the shooting triggered a wave of questions that he feels need to be examined.
“How do we keep our kids safe and how do we keep our community safe?” pondered Booth, District 150’s Director of Social and Emotional learning who oversees the Wraparound Center. “How do we address mental health issues early on? What are the signs that we can be aware of when we see individuals like the 18-year-old (shooter) participate in those type of acts?
“Just what can we do, and are there things we can do differently? Is there something that we can learn about a tragic event like that, but then not only just learn what information there is on what we can do, but what can we actually implement so that doesn’t happen, not only in our community, but any other community throughout the country?”
Boone and Booth responded to the tragedy Wednesday after a group of nearly 30 community leaders met with Illinois Department of Human Services Assistant Secretary Chris Patterson at the main branch of the Peoria Public Library to discuss how to address Peoria’s gun violence problem.
“The answers are at the table. Folks in Peoria, I believe some of the leaders and folks in the nonprofit space, have a really clear idea of what needs to happen in Peoria for violence to go down,” said Patterson.
“Right now, it's an opportunity for them to get the support that they need, and they're crying out for that. We're here to be a partner in that space, help with those organizations in the city of Peoria make it as safe as possible.”
With the attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, coming just nine days after 10 people died in a shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., Booth said he’s concerned the public is becoming desensitized to these incidents.
“It’s unfortunate that violence is becoming normalized,” he said. “But we just have to continue to educate, to be proactive in conflict resolution and education and getting mental health supports and trauma recovery supports. We have to normalize that it's OK to not to be OK, and it's OK to go get help for not being OK versus lashing out in ways of violence.”
Boone said the repeating cycle surrounding school shootings is troublesome.
“They talk about it for a little bit, it gets news play, and then we forget about it and people kind of overlook school safety,” he said. “So one thing I love about Peoria Public Schools is we stay on top of school safety. It's not just something that we touch from time to time; it's consistent every day.”
Asked about stricter gun control, Boone said elected leaders must not be afraid to speak out and make tough decisions to keep children safe. Booth said keeping firearms away from potential school shooters needs to be a legislative issue.
“One of the things that can be done is having gun laws that makes sense,” said Booth. “Not to take away the right to own firearms, but (requiring) mental health background checks, follow-up checks. What can be done when we see signs of an individual that's having those thoughts of committing violence, and how can that impact their ownership of guns when they are at risk of not being mentally stable?”
Peoria gun violence reduction
IDHS identified Peoria as a community that has experienced concentrated gun violence, making the city eligible for a share of $113 million in state funding toward prevention and reduction efforts. Gov. JB Pritzker announced the grant money earlier this month as part of a $250 million package being dispersed over three years.
“The governor is very intentional about making sure Peoria was in partnership with the state of Illinois as we addressed violence reduction,” said Patterson, who oversees IDHS’ Office of Firearm Violence Prevention. So we're here to talk to members of the community and the local advisory councils who are giving a recommendation to this office on how we should fund the Peoria area.”
The group of stakeholders attending the meeting included elected officials, heads of community organizations, members of law enforcement, and health care representatives. Among the areas of need they stressed were intervention for high-risk youth, providing family support, improved access to mental health services, and expanding the capacity of non-profit groups.
During the discussion, Carver Community Center CEO Jacobie Proctor noted the challenges of getting through to kids in at-risk situations.
“The causes of violence are not the same as they were 15 years ago,” said Proctor. “We need to re-evaluate and find new ways to engage with young people.”
Patterson said its imperative to have people with past life experiences related to gun-related crime involved in the process so they can relate to the individuals they’re trying to reach.
“We cannot continue to have conversations around violence and not include people who were trapped in the cycle of violence,” said Patterson. “They just have a different perspective; they see things the way someone who's not involved in that circle or cycle would see things. So we need that feedback, we need that input.
“If I'm talking to somebody who's gang-involved or who's carrying guns, I don't want to assume but rather, I'd rather talk directly to the individual and find out what it is they need in order to stop that kind of behavior.”
Police Chief Eric Echevarria said the various non-profit organizations must work in concert with each other and alongside the police department to be effective in the fight against gun violence.
“I believe that that's a very important factor in this,” Proctor agreed. “I think everyone has to work together to help this work. Community involvement (and) police involvement, they are hand in hand. We can't do one without the other.”
Booth also said his biggest takeaway from the discussion was the importance of collaboration.
“This is a multifaceted approach; this is not a one-dimensional approach,” he said. “It's going to take not only supporting the individuals that are victims, the individuals that are at risk of being perpetrators, the individuals that actually are perpetrators, but also helping communities and families. It's a very complex issue that has to be tackled on many fronts.”