Amid national crisis, Walter Payton College Prep sets safety example

By Robbie Weinstein
Medill Reports

As schools nationwide face questions about their security measures, one Chicago public high school might be a model.

Walter Payton College Prep, a magnet school on the city’s north side, has hundreds of students come in and out of its doors every day. Despite the school’s well-kept exterior, Payton’s extensive security measures are the first thing to jump out.

Anyone entering the building must be buzzed in by security; the doors are locked. Just inside the entrance sits the security desk and a metal detector, where Head of Security Judith Watkins monitors the entrance and cameras across the school. Students must scan ID cards at the desk to enter; the desk computer shows their photos and where they’re supposed to be. Officers roam the halls and outside the building at all times.

Although security officers don’t carry firearms, Watkins is confident in Walter Payton’s measures. Even entering the building is a challenge.

“If I don’t know who you are, you don’t get in.”

Compare this to fellow CPS school Lincoln Park High School, which one can readily enter without locked doors or a proactive security team. Walter Payton may not have the massive security contingent of some suburban schools such as Evanston Township High School, but it has far fewer students and entrances to monitor. The school added a third security officer starting in January and also employs off-duty police officers, but it still hopes to improve its efficiency.

“We’re all one group,” Watkins said. “So they act as security officers versus police officers. With them being on the team, it helps with them giving suggestions as to how can we make this place more secure.”

As an elite public school, however, Walter Payton is in a different position from many schools. The school offers exchange programs in countries including China and South Africa, and students average an ACT score of 29.7, approaching the national 95th percentile. Compare that with the many underprivileged schools in Chicago, and it seems impossible that all schools can get the resources that help Walter Payton’s security team flourish.

Funding gaps may be insurmountable, but schools still might learn from Walter Payton’s commitment and attention to detail. In addition to one or two CPS-mandated training sessions per year, Walter Payton’s security team goes through routine training organized by Watkins, an expert in private-sector security. Hiring seasoned veterans of the security business might not be possible for every school, but Walter Payton’s measures show the value of investing in safety.

“Most of it is preventable, but you have to have everyone on board with you,” Watkins said. “We’ve been pretty lucky, but we’ve had situations where people try to come in, and we’ve cut that off.”