The Catholic Commentator

The Feb. 14 deadly shooting that resulted in the loss of 17 lives at a Florida high school has many students, parents and school administrators across the country, including those in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, on edge. 

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People attend a candlelight prayer vigil Feb. 15 for the victims of a mass shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. At least 17 people were killed in the Feb. 14 shooting. The suspect, 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz, is in custody. Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters | Catholic News Service 


Even before the shootings that have shocked the nation, however, school superintendent Dr. Melanie Verges said diocesan principals had already developed their own safety protocols. Those protocols, she said, are based on the size and layout of a school’s campus and schedule. 

“One size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “So, we’re very grateful that our principals are keenly aware about safety and they’ve taken proactive steps to make sure they have safe campuses.” 

Verges said that even during her annual school visits she often has to be “buzzed in,” sign the visitors’ book and required to wear a name tag provided to her by the school. According to Verges, many of the schools have their own set of signals designed to alert faculty and staff in case of an emergency. 

“Some schools will have different sounds for different things, like one’s a fire drill and one’s an intruder and there will be different buzzers and different beeps,” she explained. 

Those signals also change over time, she said, so that former students or adults would not know of the unique protocols. While principals have developed their own safety procedures, the Catholic Schools Office has a comprehensive plan for all schools in the event of an emergency in its “Crisis Response Manual.” 

Colleen Caillet, principal of Catholic High of Pointe Coupee in New Roads, along with Dr. Cindy Ryals, principal of St. Alphonsus Ligouri School in Greenwell Springs, were part of the committee that wrote the manual. 

“We have procedures already in place that deal with an active shooter,” said Caillete. “And, we follow the protocol of the local LEOs (law enforcement offices).” 

Caillet met with local law enforcement to go over the school’s procedures less than a week after the shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 

Just a few weeks ago, Ryals, who wrote a dissertation entitled “School Leaders’ Perceptions of Conducting Active Shooter Drills,” was a presenter at the National School Response Conference in Las Vegas, where the October concert shooting was still fresh on the minds of many.

“(There was) the realization that it’s not just our schools,” said Ryals. “It’s every public venue we walk into. It can happen anywhere we are. And, so what I heard from almost every speaker there, unfortunately, the general citizen has to start thinking a little more open mindedly about their surroundings, being aware. If I see something, I have to say something.” 

It’s the new mantra, she said. After 9/11, according to Ryals, the focus was placed on physical objects like an abandoned suitcase or book bag. 

“Now they’re sending these messages, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this,’ and in most cases it’s somebody letting off steam,” she said. “But, if we don’t take it seriously, it could lead to tragedy.” 

She said that in most of the cases she has studied, “the kids knew about it.”

“They had seen it on Instagram or a Snapchat post or in general conversation,” she said. 

Technology might be the tool for threats but it can also be the tool for stopping someone from carrying out those threats, Ryals said. The CSO implemented an anti-bullying app for iPads and cellphones in the fall called
STOPit. The system provides a platform for anonymous reporting. 

According to Verges, many of the schools in the diocese have made the STOPit app available to parents and students and “have been highly successful because they can follow up” on the reports to address the issues. 

“And, it doesn’t just have to be about bullying,” she said. “Sometimes students are concerned about their friend being sad. We’ve had that. They could report a weapon. They could report anything they feel like they need the school to look at.” 

“We’re meeting students where they are,” Verges added. “Because they’re good at technology and so we urge all of our schools to start using the STOPit app.” 

Troubled 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz has been charged with 17 counts of first-degree premeditated murder after stalking the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15 rifle on Valentine’s Day. Fourteen more faculty and students were injured in the tragedy. Cruz had reportedly been expelled from the school for disciplinary reasons. 

Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski urged community members to come together “to support one another in this time of grief.”

“With God’s help, we can remain strong and resolute to resist evil in all its manifestations,” the archbishop said in a statement. 

In a late-night telegram to Archbishop Wenski, Pope Francis assured “all those affected by this devastating attack of his spiritual closeness.” 

“With the hope that such senseless acts of violence may cease,” he invoked “divine blessings of peace and strength” on the South Florida community. 

(CNS contributed to this report.)