Catholic schools: being safe, feeling safe
By Julie Filby
When she heard the heroic teachers at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School made every effort to protect their students, Kathy Shadel, principal at Nativity of Our Lord School in Broomfield, wasn’t surprised.
“(Teachers) do that instinctively,” she told the Denver Catholic Register Dec. 20, following the Dec. 14 tragedy where a gunman entered the Connecticut school and fatally shot 20 children and six staff members.
“They’re our kids,” she said of the innate care teachers show their students. “We want them to be safe, and we want them to feel safe.”
The emotion that compels school teachers and administrators to safeguard students in crisis situations is guided by practical written plans that are in place at all Archdiocese of Denver Catholic schools.
Those procedures provide standard response protocols in the case of emergency situations such as a fire, tornado, earthquake, bomb threat, missing child, building danger—or as recently cast into the spotlight: intruders inside the school.
“We provide policy guidelines for managing schools,” explained Richard Thompson, superintendent. “They cover a hundred different topics … (safety procedures) are multi-dimensional because they’re always in front of us.”
Archdiocesan research showed 92 percent of Catholic school parents indicated a safe environment was “important” or “very important.” Ninety-one percent of them rated the archdiocese’s performance as “good” or “excellent.”
“It’s not merely a matter of compliance,” said Thompson. “It’s rooted in serving out of love.
“Our role is to love and protect the person we’re serving,” he continued. “Parents have entrusted their children to us, and we must take every reasonable precaution to ensure they’re protected.”
Planning for emergencies
Immediately following the Newtown shootings, Shadel heard from a lot of parents.
“(They said) ‘I know we do a lot, but are there going to be any changes?’” she conveyed.
When responding to the parents, she invited them to review the school’s emergency plans, which are kept on-site. Generally emergency plans are not widely distributed for security reasons, Thompson said.
“We have to be intentional about what we share as far as detailed plans,” he explained. “An intruder could be someone associated with the school community.”
At a minimum, school crisis plans include information regarding evacuation, notification of police or other authorities, signals or codes for personnel, a system to contact parents, a system to release students, provisions for site isolation, methods of internal and external communication, first aid, faculty and staff assignments, closing the school, and early dismissal of students.
Plans are reviewed and updated by school administration each year, submitted to the Office of Catholic Schools, and shared with all school personnel, who receive ongoing training.
“We really have to follow the procedures in place,” Shadel said. “To the letter of the law, not the spirit.”
Nativity’s policies are also reviewed annually by their school resource officer from the Broomfield Police Department. The majority of Catholic schools have an assigned officer or consultant affiliated with law enforcement.
Law enforcement is also involved with drills to help prepare staff and students for potential emergencies and improve decision-making skills in stressful situations.
Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools
Varies by school
Drills and preparation
Since the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Jefferson County where 12 students and a teacher were killed, many schools have added lockdown drills to the list of traditional drills such as fire and tornado.
Sgt. D. P. Walts, public information officer for Broomfield Police, who is charge of the school resource officers for both Nativity and Holy Family High School, explained that a school is locked down when there is a threat inside the school. The motto “lock, lights, out of sight” dictates a lockdown.
“The students go where they can’t be seen from the hallway,” he said. “So it appears there’s no one in the classroom.”
Exterior doors in Catholic schools, as well as most schools nationwide, are required to be locked; and many keep interior classroom doors locked as well, or employ magnet mechanisms or kick-stops to allow doors to be locked quickly.
“Our classroom doors have been locked for several years,” said Shadel. “You can get out, but it would slow (an intruder) down from being able to get in.”
Following a drill, an officer talks with students and administrators.
“After every drill we sit with the principal and discuss the drill, room by room,” said Walts. “Every time we do drills, we learn things, everyone gets an education.”
Schools also prepare for lockout situations when there is a threat, not directly to the school, but in the neighboring zone. This could include a nearby fire, police activity, or criminal activity like a drug bust or robbery. During a lockout, no one is allowed to leave or enter the building.
“The kids may not even know about it,” said Shadel.
There have been 10 to 12 lockouts in Denver metro-area Catholic schools this school year.
Being secure, feeling secure
The tragic events in Newtown have weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of many, including Shadel.
“Security is always a work in progress,” she said. “(Newtown) was such a wake-up call, we can’t get complacent; we just can’t take any chances with our kids.”
While there needs to be a greater awareness and serious attention paid to safety, Thompson noted the millions of children who attend school every day without incident.
“We need to be cautious not to extrapolate a hideous and egregious act like Newtown,” he said. “There must be a fiduciary trust between the school and the parent. Schools need to provide enough information to parents to establish that trust.”
For more information about a school’s safety protocols, contact the principal.