By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Long gone are the days when school officials had to simply run an inventory of desks, school supplies and audiovisual equipment before the start of the school year.
Today’s back-to-school checklists are far more complex in order to ensure that faculty and staff members are ready to face any kind of potential disaster from a weather-related event, a medical emergency or an act of violence.
At the very least, school officials need to have certain items on hand: updated first-aid kits, emergency supplies, evacuation plans, emergency contact information, student and staff rosters, portable communication devices, such as walkie-talkies or cell phones, and, if possible, an emergency weather radio.
They also need to consider worst-case scenarios and be prepared for their response.
“The more prepared we are, the less chance we’ll be vulnerable,” said Michael Caruso, assistant superintendent for secondary schools and government relations in the Washington Archdiocese, during an Aug. 24 emergency-preparedness seminar for principals.
Caruso, who participated in a school safety conference sponsored by the U.S. Education Department this August in Washington, told administrators that although they shouldn’t be alarmists they shouldn’t be “foolhardy either.”
He has long advocated that nonpublic schools should receive a portion of federal funds available to public schools for emergency preparedness, stressing that private schools are just as susceptible to local and national emergencies.
This appeal bore fruit this summer, at least in part, when 21 Catholic schools in a Maryland county and the District of Columbia obtained federal funding for their school safety plans under Title IV-A of the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for “safe and drug-free schools and communities.”
Sister Dale McDonald, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and director of public policy and educational research for the National Catholic Educational Association, said more Catholic dioceses need to tap into federal funds available for school safety, to be used either for new technology, such as the means to contact all school parents in an emergency, or for special training.
“The incidents we’ve been preparing for are changing,” she told Catholic News Service Aug. 31, noting that school officials are not just looking at the possibility of intruders, but also biological threats or a flu pandemic.
Public funding is available either through Title IV or through competitive grants, she added. In the Washington Archdiocese, public funds have enabled the archdiocese to hire contractors to help develop a comprehensive crisis plan for schools and implement it.
During the initial crisis training, archdiocesan principals were strongly urged to get to know their local fire and police officials and not to wait for a crisis situation to call on them. They were reminded to have emergency plans in place for a wide range of possible disasters from intruders to the outbreak of a flu pandemic.
These same topics were also covered at the summer conference sponsored by the Education Department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools that also addressed anti-gang initiatives, prevention of drug abuse and underage drinking, cyberbullying, suicide prevention and reducing childhood obesity — all in two days of workshops.
Although most Catholic dioceses likely have emergency plans, the NCEA provides information on its Web site, http://www.ncea.org, about what should be in each school’s emergency kit, a list of resources and sample emergency plans for a Catholic school crisis.
Emergency plans for each diocese vary in scope. The Diocese of Allentown, Pa., has a comprehensive 151-page manual for potential school-crisis situations. The manual outlines how schools should respond to drugs, child abuse, death, suicide, medical emergencies from choking to disease outbreaks, all types of natural disasters, bomb threats, intruders and gangs. It also includes sections on firearm-handling, evacuation procedures, media contacts and emergency phone numbers.
As a preliminary precaution, most schools monitor main-door usage and make sure doors are locked. But as previous school shootings have demonstrated, another real concern is the well-being of students on school grounds.
In a letter to parents last year to inform them of the school’s newly installed security doors, James Franz, principal of Bishop Thomas K. Gorman Catholic School in Tyler, Texas, said preventative measures for potential threats “are not at all the panacea some profess.”
The principal of the school for grades six through 12 stressed that school violence often comes from within the school community and he urged students to take responsibility for school safety by reaching out to each other and seeking adult help for those in trouble.
“The solution for school violence lies more in the hands of responsible students than in any administrative or security action,” he wrote.
Other Catholic schools have taken school-safety concerns a step further to ensure the security of students even when they are not on school grounds.
St. Thomas More School in Munster, Ind., initiated a student identification program last year with the local police department that provides each student, with parental permission, an identification card with his or her photograph and fingerprint.
The cards are meant to identify students if they are lost, kidnapped or unconscious. Chet Nordyke, principal of St. Thomas More, hopes the cards will never be necessary.
“We hope the situation never arises,” Nordyke said, “but it’s a reality of today’s society, something we don’t want to think or talk about.”
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Contributing to this story was Debbie Bosak in Munster.