Catholic schools work to promote safety

Catholic school leaders from New England to California are joining their public school counterparts in evaluating safety protocols and looking to see what they can do to prevent school shootings and other tragedies.

From building relationships with local law enforcement agencies to ensuring that parents are familiar with their children’s school safety plans, Catholic education officials have been busy in recent weeks with securing their facilities and preparing their communities to respond in the event of an emergency.

Review and improvement

“We’re looking at everything reasonably possible to keep the school community safe and, at the same time, not to forget that Catholic schools must be sacred spaces — places of peace, joy and prayer ... places where students can study, learn and play innocently,” said Daniel Ferris, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island.

Ferris told Our Sunday Visitor that his office earlier this year scheduled an active-shooter training and safety update with an expert from the Rhode Island State Police for an administrators’ meeting in April.

But after a gunman killed 17 people on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Ferris said pastors, school board members and crisis-response team members were invited to attend the active-shooter training meeting.

“We’ve been reminded that school safety is everyone’s responsibility,” Ferris said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Education recently discussed the topic of school shootings with its members and consultants. In a letter sent to Catholic educators on April 11, the Secretariat of Catholic Education said the committee felt it was important to encourage bishops, pastors and school leaders to review emergency plans, communication policies and mental-health resources in light of the increased level of concern over school safety.

“Sharing best practices and resources is for the good and safety of all in our parish and school communities,” Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the USCCB Secretariat of Catholic Education, and Jennifer Daniels, the secretariat’s associate director for public policy, wrote in the letter.

A March 9 statement from the National Catholic Education Association also emphasized that educators “need to speak up about the importance of school safety, not just in public schools but in all schools, and make sure that federal safety measures such as funds for school security systems, rapid alert systems for local police, funds for guards or entrance security, teacher training, etc., are available to private schools on an opt-in basis.” The NCEA said that Catholic education leaders “need to review school safety plans, collaborate on better ways to keep students safe and put children first.”

Student activism

Students in Catholic schools across the United States also have taken the message of school safety to heart. Students leaders have organized walkouts, marches and in-school events such assemblies and prayer services to talk about the issue of gun violence, and to reflect on what they can do to make a difference.

“The kids have been discussing this openly in classrooms, in their social studies and religion classes, and in group settings all the time. ... The kids take this very seriously,” said Robert Oliveri, the associate superintendent for secondary school administration in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Oliveri told OSV that the local Catholic school students have shared their initiatives with teachers and faculty members, and that they have worked together as entire school communities to raise awareness on school safety and gun violence.

“Violence is a big concern in today’s world. We’re probably not as close-knit organizationally as a society as we used to be,” Oliveri said. “If we’re going to teach the Faith to our kids, we’re going to support them in how they want to serve others to help to them have better and safer lives.”

Diocesan efforts

In a Feb. 23 letter to pastors, principals and school presidents, Kevin Baxter, the senior director and superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, referenced safety resources that he had distributed to Catholic school leaders to help them protect their students and prepare for emergencies.

“Our first task is to do our utmost to ensure that we are protecting our campuses and students to the best of our ability and preparing for any event that may bring harm to our students,” said Baxter, who added that it was necessary that school leaders “all reflect on our security and safety procedures and ensure we are as prepared possible.”

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ administrative handbook notes that all archdiocesan and parish schools are closed campuses, and that nobody is allowed to enter unless authorized by school administrators.

In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Ken Gavin, an archdiocesan spokesman, said school administration and staff are required to report knowledge of any suspected threat, no matter how vague, immediately to law enforcement. Gavin also told OSV that the individual Catholic schools conduct regular reviews of their emergency protocols.

“Those reviews are part of ongoing plans related to school safety and they are conducted with first responders in the local community,” Gavin said, adding that the archdiocese will continue “to monitor and review our protocols to ensure that our safe school remains a safe, healthy environment where our young people can learn and grow.”

Stephen A. Perla, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Fall River in Massachusetts, told OSV that school safety is “a key priority.”

“In today’s age, you just never know what can happen and you have to be prepared for anything,” Perla said. “We’ve asked school leaders and pastors in light of what has been going on across the country to look at their safety plans and take inventory of their mental-health resources.”

Tragedies such as the school shooting in Florida underscore the importance of continually assessing safety procedures. Oliveri, from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said the Catholic schools in his archdiocese are “constantly in the process” of enhancing safety protocols and preparing for a mass-casualty event such as a school shooting.

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“We have been working tirelessly for years on all of our safety protocols,” Oliveri said. “As Catholic schools go, our primary responsibility is to teach our faith and develop academic, extracurricular and supportive programs for students as they grow and develop as human beings. You can’t do either of those if you’re not paying attention to the safety of each child as they come and go, especially in today’s world.”

Ferris, from the Diocese of Providence, said the Parkland shooting has reminded school leaders to look carefully at how they assess a school’s culture to determine if it ensures physically, socially and emotionally-safe conditions, and positive environments where children are safe from harassment, exclusion and bullying.

“We haven’t forgotten prayer, either,” Ferris said. “I think you will find in any of the schools in the Diocese of Providence a renewed devotion to St. Michael and the guardian angels.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.