June 1, 2018

Educators work diligently to promote school safety

Pre-kindergarten students at St. Patrick School in Terre Haute take part in a school safety drill. (Submitted photo)

Pre-kindergarten students at St. Patrick School in Terre Haute take part in a school safety drill. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Recent school shootings in Noblesville, Ind., on May 25; in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18; and in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, have understandably raised concerns of parents of students across the country about school safety.

This is as true of parents of students in Catholic schools across central and southern Indiana as anywhere else.

Mary McCoy, an assistant superintendent in the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools (OCS), says that school leaders across the archdiocese as well as her colleagues in OCS see advancing school safety as one of their principal tasks.

“Our schools have always been safe and they continue to be safe,” McCoy said. “That’s always been a priority to us. It’s nothing new. We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep our kids safe.”

The tasks included in doing whatever it takes has increased over the years. For generations, archdiocesan Catholic schools have held regular fire and tornado drills. Over the past decade, all Catholic schools in central and southern Indiana have installed locked entry doors in which visitors must be “buzzed in.”

More recently, steps have been taken to have school leaders prepare for the kinds of incidents that occurred in Santa Fe and Parkland.

“We’re talking with principals today about active shooter training. Three years ago, we wouldn’t have done that,” said Robert Rash, another OCS assistant superintendent.

McCoy and several Catholic school leaders across central and southern Indiana are graduates of the state Department of Education’s Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy. The classes in the academy give training from experts in the field and state law enforcement leaders on such topics as school shootings, school entrance security and school safety before and after the school day.

Graduates of the academy must take classes each year to be recertified.

For about 10 years, Catholic schools in the archdiocese have had in place plans for how all school employees are to respond to a wide range of potential emergency scenarios, from weather-related warnings to intruders and hostage situations.

These plans, McCoy said, are regularly updated, and school leaders must review these plans with all school staff.

Such preparations, while often a response to emerging trends in society, are a reflection of the Catholic identity of archdiocesan schools, McCoy said.

“It’s part of our mission,” she said. “We provide a safe environment so that we can provide a high quality Catholic education for all of those students. You can’t do that without a safe environment.”

“In our children, we’re protecting our most vulnerable,” Rash said.

Schools across central and southern Indiana are taking steps on their own to enhance school safety through increased training of staff, fostering closer relationships with local law enforcement agencies and improvements in doors and camera systems.

St. Patrick School in Terre Haute has received grants from the archdiocese and the state that enabled it to improve its doors, which now allow teachers in classrooms to easily lock them from inside their classrooms.

“Most educators would view it as changing with the times,” said St. Patrick principal Patty Mauer of the increased attention that educators are giving to safety. “This is another adjustment that we have to make and another hat that we have to wear in the things that we do.”

Mauer and all the staff members at St. Patrick also train the students in age appropriate ways to be ready for various kinds of emergencies. Although important for their educational experience at St. Patrick, Mauer says, this training will help them throughout life.

“We need to make them aware that the environment that they’re going to be growing up in is different than what many of us grew up in,” she said. “If they can [be aware] here at school, they can take it out into the world where this kind of stuff can happen.”

That world is different from the one in which Dr. Joseph Brettnacher began his educational career nearly 30 years ago. During that time, the principal of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis has had to learn many new things about school safety.

He’s grateful, though, for the opportunity to be able to promote the safety of everyone at Scecina more effectively.

“You have to recognize the reality for what it is today,” Brettnacher said. “I’m grateful that we have emergency operation plans and protocols to follow. Regardless of whether they had it 30 years ago, I would have wished that we had it 30 years ago.”

Scecina recently received a grant from the archdiocese and raised other funds to enhance school safety by improving its camera systems and secondary entrances to the school building.

Like many other schools across the archdiocese, leaders at Scecina are working more closely with local law enforcement agencies and other first responders on a regular basis to be ready when emergencies arise.

“I appreciate that it’s a team effort,” Brettnacher said. “We have faculty, staff and outside agencies that are part of our continuing safety team. Everybody’s working hard to enhance the safety of the school.”

In addition to working to enhance school safety through updated planning and improved physical facilities, leaders at Scecina are also turning to prayer.

A month after the shooting in Parkland, Scecina students, faculty and staff participated in a prayer service for the 14 students and three adults who were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Students saw the importance of prayer in bringing about positive change in school safety.

“When we pray, God actually is listening,” said Scecina senior Molly Griffin, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis. “He’s going to make a difference. If we don’t talk to him, nothing’s going to change.” †

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