Efforts to protect district go back years
With the recent shooting deaths of students at a Florida high school, St. Charles Parish school officials say their years long effort to keep schools safe have even included bringing in a former U.S. Army Special Forces consultant to advise on best school design from intruders.
“You’re never going to be 100 percent,” said Sonny Savoie, member of the parish’s School Board. “It would be foolish to even think that, but you can do some things to make someone think twice about doing it.”
Nicholas Cruz, the accused gunman in last Wednesday’s shooting at his former school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, has been charged with 17 counts of murder. The impact of the shooting also was felt locally when Parish President Larry Cochran announced he sent condolences to the victims’ families and parish flags on all government buildings were flown at half -staff through Feb. 19.
For local officials, worries about protecting schools came into greater focus and discussion.
“In all reality, if someone wants to do harm they’ll figure out a way to do it,” Savoie said. But he also said if anyone expects to do the same at a school in St. Charles Parish that person will face state-of-the-art technology and well-trained people.
St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office Capt. Rodney Madere agreed.
“In a time of crisis, you’re not going to rise to the occasion,” Madere said. “You’re going to sink to the level of your training.”
He pointed to the “active shooter drill” held every two years at a parish school as one of the numerous proactive measures taken to ensure teachers and staff, as well as students, are prepared for an incident like the Florida shooting.
Madere said the key is simulating the crisis sufficiently so people can plan a response conducive to saving lives, including their own.
Also seven resource officers and three D.A.R.E. officers are assigned to each high school, middle school and the Landry Alternative Center, he said. Additional deputies also cover special school events, as well as include schools in their routine patrol.
“Our schools are very proactive,” Madere said about the system’s situational awareness.
Kade Rogers, the school system’s administrator of safety, security and emergency preparedness, said the school system is grateful for its partnerships with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Operations Center, local fire departments, emergency medical services and St. Charles Parish Hospital that all work closely with the school system on a regular basis and in emergencies.
Also, Rogers said the system has made safety such a priority that a school delegation was sent to Columbine High School in Colorado to learn from the 1999 shooting.
According to Rogers, “The knowledge gained from that visit and researched best practices are part of our safety and security measures.”
Madere said he’s also visited mass shooting sites to gain knowledge about them, including the Virginia Tech 2007 shooting with 32 dead and Sandy Hook Elementary School 2012 shooting with 20 deaths. He will visit the Florida shooting site, too.
Additionally, Rogers said, every year the School Board dedicates $200,000 for safe school improvements, and the 2015 Bond Issue that was passed provides enhanced safety and security features at schools. Through the years, experts have also been hired as consultants to assess and make recommendations relative to student and employee safety.
Security cameras are at multiple locations and monitored from the school, district office and the Sheriff’s Office.
Structurally, school buildings have been adjusted to make them safer.
Michael Dorn, a well-known school safety expert and retired Special Forces consultant with Safe Havens International, recommended safety vestibules at each school. Rogers said they implemented them to provide a single point of entry, which were upgraded over recent years with a second set of doors accessed electronically.
Once visitors access the doors, they are signed in through the Raptor Visitor Management System and a badge is printed for the visitor.
But Rogers said school safety is an effort shared by everyone.
“We all play a role in sustaining a safe learning environment,” he said. “If you or your child notice something out of the ordinary or concerning, say something to someone involved. Report things to your teacher, principal or local law enforcement officials.”
Overall, School Board President Al Suffrin emphasized school safety has been a longtime priority.
“The school system continues to research and evaluate existing policies, protocols and procedures to stay on the forefront of best practices regarding safety and security,” Suffrin said.
In his 34 years as a School Board member, John Smith knows firsthand the school board’s determined efforts to keep safety as one of its top priorities.
But, even with these measures, Smith added, “You can’t ever say it’s done. As new technology is developed, the perpetrators are developing new ways of doing things so you have to continually upgrade and be alert.”