With the new school year in session nationwide, our Catholic Schools find themselves balancing the challenges of returning to a “normal” school year while remaining mindful of new instructional methods and ever-changing mask and distance mandates. Yet another challenge, however, lurks in the background, and it’s an overlooked casualty of the COVID-pandemic: when our schools were piecing together strategies to address educating during a global emergency, they stopped planning for how they would address a local one.
Worse yet, students are returning to schools after spending twelve to eighteen months in relative isolation. Another unintended side effect of the medically necessary “social-distance” mandate was an increase in antisocial behavior, particularly among students in the junior high and early high school age groups. This creates a perfect storm for school safety professionals: risk has increased, while preparedness has reached a 2-year low. This begs the question: “What should our schools do?”
Regardless of where a school finds itself on their journey toward a more safe and secure environment, it is worthwhile to remain mindful of some basic ABCs and 123s.
The ABCs Of Catholic School Safety
A: Acknowledgement. Catholic schools must begin to acknowledge that they are at least as vulnerable as their public and private school counterparts when it comes to the potential for violent incidents on their campuses. The earliest example of a shooting on a Catholic school campus in the United States occurred on April 9th, 1891; the most recent: April 12, 2021. Parents, principals, and pastors alike must abandon the notion that the close-knit communities that exist in most Catholic schools preclude them from violence; in fact, the opposite may be true. In smaller environments students run a greater risk of truly being “singled out” when they have a much more limited peer group to try to assimilate to.
Once this acknowledgment occurs, administrators can begin to have honest dialogue on how to better secure their buildings and better protect their pupils from the myriad risks that have the potential to occur at any school.
B: Budget. It didn’t take long to bring up money, but the reality is that there are a lot of items that have become the “minimum process standard” over the last 10 years. These items typically represent a significant (particularly by traditionally frugal Catholic school standards) outlay of capital. The list reads like a litany designed to make any parish business manager cringe: IP-based video solutions, digital video recorders, POE switches, electronic access control, magnetic locks, automated external defibrillators, tourniquets and “stop the bleed” kits, classroom door barricades, exterior glass films, retrofitted entrance lobbies, digital walkie-talkies, and on and on. After looking at this list the bake sales and 50/50 raffles for refinishing the gym floor seem like a walk in the park.
While intimidating, these items do not necessarily need to be incorporated into your campus all at once. Ironically, while working with a professional Catholic school security consultant may seem to be yet another expense, good consultants will have the ability to guide you on how to build a program that is easily scalable, and they should have a network of vetted solution providers that offer their clients preferred pricing.
Beyond the physical security equipment however, a consultant should help you build a comprehensive awareness program. They will evaluate your plans, assist in designing tabletop disaster planning exercises, identify local experts to deliver specialized training (CPR, AED, etc.), conduct full-scale drills, and aid in rolling out your program to students and staff, parishioners, and parents. Many of these awareness items are budget neutral, costing nothing more than paper and ink, and maybe some healthy snacks for the faculty meeting. And, while inexpensive, each of these items are also crucial components of any school safety program.
C: Collaboration. As discussed above, an effective school security program involves collaboration between school administrators, staff, students, parents, and the sponsoring religious order and/or parish. Each of these groups have roles to play in the process and should share the same goal of keeping every person safe. Students must have a safe and trustworthy method of reporting bullying, threats, or other “red flag” behaviors. Teachers must know how to lead by example and act decisively in an emergency. Administrators must have the support and fortitude necessary to enforce policies in a manner that is fair and consistent. Parishioners should be seen as partners in prevention, not just a group of people expected to contribute to the annual appeal designed to help defray program costs.
Yet beyond these internal partners schools must collaborate with external partners. Some of these are obvious – police and fire departments, and now public health agencies are great places to start. County youth and family services departments, and local mental health agencies also make the list. There is also a need to involve your local public school district in your planning, as well as public or private bussing providers. Finally, even your school’s insurance agency, your legal counsel, a communications consultant, and neighboring businesses all factor into development of a comprehensive plan.
123s Of Catholic School Safety
1: One person must have overall ownership of all plan components, no matter how trivial they may seem. In most Catholic school settings, the pastor of the sponsoring parish is the ex officio administrator of the school. All administrative decisions rest with him, unless otherwise specified by diocesan policy. It is commanded (and sometimes necessary to remind) pastors that they are to “spare no sacrifice in helping Catholic schools fulfill their function in a continually more perfect way.” Gravissimum Educationis § 9. In short, the pastor must be viewed as a key member of your school’s security team and be invested in the process for it to be successful.
2: Two of everything. Or even more than that. Top tactical operators live by a simple creed: “Two is one, and one is none.” Translated into our vernacular this means that everything should have a backup. Power supplies, communications plans, extra first aid equipment, duplicate attendance rosters and class lists are all necessary. Multiple evacuation routes and meeting points should be incorporated into drills. All staff members, and really all high-school students, should be trained and proficient in first aid, tourniquet application, CPR and even AED use. Murphy’s Law dictates that the emergency will occur when the emergency coordinator is at an off-site meeting. Be prepared.
3: Three Persons in One God. As Catholics we are called to live our faith in all moments of our lives. School security plans must be formulated in a manner that is holistic, and for us that includes incorporating our faith. If you are working with professionals that scoff at this notion, take pause, and consider if they are the right fit for your school.
A leading school safety firm provides training materials for students explaining how sheepdogs protect sheep from wolves. For Catholics we have a better resource – Jesus. The Good Shepherd. When disasters strike, no matter how big or small, uttering a simple prayer “Lord, make haste, come to my aid,” or “Come, Holy Spirit,” does nothing to delay our response, but gives us a moment of calm to respond to that emergency with faith and confidence.
Using these points, take a few minutes to reflect on how your school is equipped and trained – physically, mentally, and spiritually – to manage a crisis of any sort, be it a workplace injury, an armed intruder, a child custody dispute that spilled over into the parking lot, or a medical emergency. School administrators should be communicating regularly with parents, and kids, on changes or updates to security plans. Administrators should speak confidently about the protocols in place, while being certain to keep sensitive elements of those plans out of the public domain. A safe meeting site, for example, is no longer safe if everyone knows about it.
If you need help in establishing your program, reach out to a professional and ensure that their initial consultation is always free. Until then, remember Jesus’ lesson to us recorded in Mathew’s Gospel: “If the master of the house had known the hour the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared…” (Mt. 24, 43-44)