It has been 20 years since the tragic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
While the occurrence was 900 miles away from McLean County, Tommy Burrough, superintendent of the school district, remembers the day clearly, as it was during his first year as an administrator.
“I don’t remember how (I found out) — if it was a text, I don’t know if somebody called me,” Burrough said. “It was my first month as an assistant principal at the high school. I went to the (television), and the first plane just hit, and I’m watching, and then the second plane hit.”
Burrough remembers going around the school to find the principal at the time to let them know, before touching base with all the staff members about what transpired.
Burrough was keen on not shielding the news from the students and encouraged the staff to have some of those difficult conversations.
“I went around, and I remember opening up the doors and getting to tell (people) ‘here’s what’s happened,’ ” Burrough said. “ ‘If you want to turn your (televisions) on and just let the kids watch, talk, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. Just keep them calm. If they want to talk to you, they can.’
“If (the students) needed someone to talk to, or got scared — I wanted them to know that we have people that would help. They were gonna see it come across the news or if they were online. We needed to let them know.”
Burrough eventually saw students being picked up by their families and going home. Burrough still made it a point to check up on the folks left in the building, even though he was not certain how to approach the situation.
“A lot of walking the halls going to the (classrooms) and checking up on everybody,” Burrough said. “It was more of an awe that day — more of a shock awe, I guess. It was just, (I) didn’t know what to say. (The country’s) just been attacked.”
Burrough doesn’t fully recall how the entire day played out, but he knows it led to the infrastructure of school safety changing drastically.
“It was a blur,” Burrough said. “I know from that day (that) a lot of educational practices — SafeSchools laws had come in place; heck, try to go to the airport now. A lot of things came about around this time.”
Since 2001, Burrough said there have been more restrictions from the state standpoint and legislature in order to be prepared for “what if” scenarios.
“We got more strenuous with visitors in the buildings during the day,” Burrough said. “Now we have a security marshal that comes around to every district and has a staff that goes through (each building). If you look at the high school now, we have a beautiful see-through wall where you can’t see in ... but you can see out. A lot of more protection laws (were) put into place, not just because of 9/11 but school shootings and everything else.”
Burrough said the districts now create an emergency operation plan that has to be approved before the first day of school every year.
“We meet with all the sheriffs, the state police, fire — we do a lot of planning and God forbid, we don’t have to use it,” Burrough said. “It’s made us more worried, to make us more aware, to make us more prepared.”
Burrough said that the tragedy has helped the schools find personnel that can help students navigate through similar situations.
“We actually have more people now that could help in our schools (that) we wish we had back then,” Burrough said. “We have the mental health providers, we have more people that work in that (realm), we have more counselors …. We have more support now.”
Though Burrough and the district have come a long way in making the school community safer, Burrough notes that day will always stand out in reference to his educational career.
“As for remembering that day, I will never forget where I was,” Burrough said. “It was something you (will) remember all your life.”
Freddie Bourne, firstname.lastname@example.org