Catholic schools focus on safety plans

CHARLESTON — In light of the recent shootings at Virginia Tech, the Office of Catholic Schools has asked each of the Diocese of Charleston’s 34 schools to take immediate safety precautions.

Sister of Notre Dame Julia Hutchison, superintendent, sent an e-mail April 20 to principals requesting that each school ensure all access doors are locked and that they review lockdown policy and other emergency procedures with faculty, staff and regular volunteers.

She also advised that everyone be aware of and respond appropriately to students who exhibit undue stress.

Following the tragedy in Virginia, several schools across the nation have reported an upswing in violence, from bomb threats to assault.

With that in mind, Sister Julia has asked diocesan schools to fast track the marriage of their individual safety plans with the comprehensive plan written by her office.

Sandra Leatherwood, assistant superintendent, spent about three months researching and writing the comprehensive plan, which was delivered to Catholic schools in January, she said in a phone interview with The Miscellany.

The schools have until October to tailor-fit the plan to their individual needs, but Leatherwood has asked that they start working on it now.

In particular, schools need to set a date to meet with emergency personnel who can help secure campus facilities against intruders.

Although the Catholic schools have long had safety procedures in place, the new one written by Leatherwood  is more detailed and encompasses all possible areas of prevention and protection.

“It not only addresses crises, but it addresses prevention of the crisis,” she said.

The 78-page document is divided into four categories covering prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.
“Knowing what to do can be the difference between calm and chaos, between courage and fear, between life and death,” the document states.

One of the first steps recommended in the manual is meeting with community safety leaders, such as mental health officials, Emergency Medical Service technicians, and fire and police department personnel, and including them in the formation of the plan. It also suggests adding evacuation and lockdown drills to standard drills already in place.

Currently, schools follow a common plan which includes locking all doors except the front entrance, having visitors sign in at the office, and escorting unknown visitors to and from their destination, said Paul Schroeder, principal of Summerville Catholic.

He said their school is installing a security system that will allow the front office to monitor every entrance and exit.
The diocesan plan gives extensive coverage to preparation for and responding to a potential tragedy.

Some of the suggestions include:

Make lockdown cards for each room and display them outside the door in the event of an emergency. A green card means no danger or injury, red signifies a need for immediate medical attention, and no card warns of an intruder or hostage situation;
Create detailed site maps for emergency personnel;
Be able to account for all students, staff and visitors.
The plan also notes that it is important to pre-select the people who will fill the roles of school commander, liaison to emergency personnel, student caregivers, security officer, medical staff and media spokesperson.
One of the most critical components in responding to a crisis is the ability to safely reunite students with their parents.

Schools should have a designated area and simple procedure in place to release students, along with transportation and shelter for children who do not have a parent or caregiver available.

Another essential element of the plan involves recovery, which states that staff and students should return to school and the “business of learning” as quickly as possible.

“This is very critical,” Leatherwood said. “You cannot expect a child to be focused on academics if they don’t feel safe.”

Now, principals have all the necessary information in one manual.

Sister Julia and Leatherwood visit the schools every year and will make sure each one has an updated safety plan in place by October.