Numerous representatives of the St. Charles Parish school and law enforcement communities attended a Homeland Security Committee meeting in Baton Rouge largely in response to the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Prior to the meeting, John Smith, St. Charles Parish School Board member and president of the Louisiana Association of School Boards, said representatives from St. Charles Parish were asked to attend due to the school system’s good reputation for school safety.
"St. Charles Parish is viewed across the state as a model," Smith said.
After the 1998 school shooting in Columbine, Colo. that left 12 students and one teacher dead as well as injuring many more, the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office and the school system began a partnership to ensure safety in local schools.
"We did not just react to what happened in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago," Sheriff Greg Champagne said.
Champagne said the unfortunate thing about school shootings is that the role of law enforcement is focused more on stopping a shooting once it has already begun.
"If someone is hell bent on committing mass murder and they have the weapons to do it there is really not a whole lot we can do to stop them because they will plan," Champagne said. "If they want to go to a school where a resource officer is, or a deputy is there, they may have it in their plans to take out that officer right away. So you are still going to be in a situation where you have a mass murderer in a school with kids."
Champagne said part of his strategy is providing intensive training to all of his officers from deputy patrolmen to court bailiffs.
"All of them are required to have some training where if they happen to be close to the scene they are able to go in and know as much as they tactically can to engage the shooter," Champagne said.
The Sheriff’s Office training is about neutralizing a potential school intruder in the shortest amount of time possible.
"Their goal is not to have a standoff, it’s to engage in warfare and to engage in combat and to go in and disable, if possible, the hostile shooter," Champagne said. "That’s what it is all about. It is truly warfare, but it is meant to minimize the loss of life."
What makes St. Charles stand out amongst other parishes is the active shooter program held each year.
The program is a simulation of an actual school invasion by an armed gunman. It puts school employees and students in a real world scenario that includes explosions and gunshots and tests the ability of administrators and educators to follow strategies already in place to protect students.
"It is designed to simulate chaos in a horrific situation. And you say why do we do this?" Champagne said. "We do it to minimize the murders that can be committed."
St. Charles Parish Public Schools Superintendent Rodney Lafon said he believes other school systems and sheriff’s offices across the state can learn from the partnership between St. Charles Parish Public Schools and the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office.
"We should always be getting better at this. We should be about continuous improvement and keep our minds on the safety of our children. If we don’t, shame on us," Lafon said. "We have a great partnership. We need more partnerships like it."
In addition, Kade Rogers, the schools coordinator of safety, security and emergency preparedness, said the district convenes a safe schools task force team that meets in the summer with local emergency responders and the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office to review safety strategies.
Lafon said one of the strengths of St. Charles Parish’s school safety program are the annual school walkthroughs that include a varied group of community members.
"We have the fire department, Sheriff’s Office, health and hospitals, an outside consultant, our director of special services, myself, physical plant maintenance, our risk manager, a parent and a student," Lafon said. "What we use is a nationally recognized document and it is 150 items we go through at each school."
Each school receives a walk-through at least once every two years.
"We go through our schools with a fine-toothed comb to address any security and any other measures that we need to control," Lafon said.
St. Charles Parish School Board President Sonny Savoie also spoke in his role as state legislative chair of the Louisiana Parent Teacher Organization.
"I don’t think we can lock down our schools like they do at Fort Knox, but we have to be able to create a safe environment that every child can feel safe in and that they can learn," Savoie said.
However, Savoie said creating safer environments may require additional funds from federal and state sources.
Scott Richard, executive director of Louisiana School Boards Association, said his organization is lobbying congress for an additional $150 million in yearly spending on school safety in addition to $30 million in one-time grants for school systems.
"A few brief initiatives that are being recommended by our parent organization at the federal level – the expansion of school safety zones, more funding for school resource officers, which is with a previous component of community oriented policing services program, and with greater funding going to law enforcement agencies and school districts," Richard said.
Committee member Terry Landry (D–Lafayette) said should funding not be available to strengthen school security, other strategies can be put in place.
"I encourage you guys to do those things and those initiatives that are free. You ought to have a police officer located near a school where if he is doing computer work in his cruiser he will be in the proximity of a school," Landry said. "If we do have the opportunity to reap some federal dollars we need to stop buying toys and be more responsible."