Baton Rouge area schools seeking safety solutions

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -  Iberville Parish Sheriff's Deputy James Washington keeps an eye out for trouble Tuesday as students change classes at Plaquemine High School. Washington, who serves as the lone school resource officer for Iberville Parish public schools, said he treats the high school as if he were on patrol in a city neighborhood.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK - Iberville Parish Sheriff's Deputy James Washington keeps an eye out for trouble Tuesday as students change classes at Plaquemine High School. Washington, who serves as the lone school resource officer for Iberville Parish public schools, said he treats the high school as if he were on patrol in a city neighborhood.

Sandy Hook shootings prompt local officials to re-examine efforts to protect students

School leaders in Louisiana, debating how best to address school safety after the shooting deaths of 26 adults and children at Sandy Hook Elementary, are calling for more trained school security officers, technology limiting access to school buildings and more tools to help law enforcement respond more effectively.

A small but vocal group of political leaders and gun rights advocates, though, wants to include training school staff, in addition to security officers, to have guns at the ready. They say schools can’t wait for law enforcement to arrive when there’s a shooting, that more adults at schools should be armed to prevent tragedy.

The prospect of more guns in schools has raised concerns among many educators, especially if those armed don’t receive extensive training. And limited school funding, and the prospect of more budget cuts, is making it hard to pay for even modest improvements in school security.

President Barack Obama has offered his initial response to the killings in Newtown, Conn., calling for a more robust federal background check system, active-shooter training for schools and emergency responders, incentives for hiring school resource officers, model emergency response plans for public institutions and national dialogues on mental health and responsible gun ownership.

States, including Louisiana, are still determining what to do.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has created a 13-member study group to examine the issue, but the group has yet to meet.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana House Select Committee on Homeland Security met on the issue, focusing primarily on the quality of current crisis intervention plans and the benefits of having armed resource officers on campus.

The discussion, however, also touched on the merits of arming teachers, adding more features such as dead bolts on classroom doors and security cameras throughout campuses, as well as stepping up anti-bullying and counseling programs for students.

Although school shootings involving multiple victims get the most media attention, such incidents are rare. They accounted for fewer than a quarter — 102 of 468 — of all school-associated violent deaths nationwide between 1992 and 2010, according to a report from the National School Safety Center, an independent nonprofit.

Of the other violent deaths during that 18-year span, 246 involved single-shooting victims, while the remaining 120 resulted from stabbings, beatings, hangings, strangling or some other cause, according to the report.

Nonfatal on-campus victimizations, such as theft, rape or physical attack, are vastly more common.

In 2010, the federal government counted 828,000 nonfatal incidents among students age 12 to 18. About 91,000 were considered serious, which includes rape, aggravated assault and robbery. By contrast, only 33 students and staff were killed on campus in 2010.

But even one death is too many, Denham Springs police Sgt. Paul Golmon said.

“Compare the number of fire- or weather-related deaths we have in schools each year — which is virtually none — and the amount we spend preparing for that versus what we spend on securing our campuses,” Golmon said. “How much is your child’s life worth?”

Golmon has served as a school resource officer in Denham Springs schools for 12 years.

School resource officers — law enforcement officers assigned to a school or group of schools full-time — assist school personnel and students with a wide variety of issues, including campus violence, drugs, truancy and general safety measures.

As the only resource officer assigned to the eight schools within Denham Springs, Golmon said, he often works four 10-hour days in the schools in addition to other weekend assignments for the department. He is based primarily at Denham Springs Junior High but makes frequent trips to the other schools in the city.

Adding at least one and preferably two more resource officers in Denham Springs would help tremendously, he said, but the department has not been able to afford it.

Golmon’s position was originally funded through a U.S. Department of Justice grant, but those funds stopped after a few years, he said.

Some school systems, however, have managed to increase their security.

The Iberville Parish School Board earlier this month agreed to spend $150,000 more a year to hire three more resource officers to patrol 10 schools. The parish Sheriff’s Office will train three deputies for the task.

The Iberville school district currently has one such officer, James Washington, stationed at the district’s biggest school, Plaquemine High.

With 850 students to watch, Washington tries to mix it up as he makes his rounds. He parks in different places each day. He varies his path, going to different halls in the high school at different times.

As he’s walking, like a behavioral researcher, he scans the students he passes, looking for signs of things amiss. Students at Plaquemine High all use laptop computers and most have cellphones. There’s a constant invisible drama of texts and posts on social media sites that Washington tries to keep abreast of, in hopes of heading off trouble.

He’s the only person on campus with a gun. He said he’s never needed to pull his Glock pistol from its holster since coming to the high school. Even so, many students, especially younger ones, want to know about it and touch it.

“There are a lot definitely fascinated by what kind of gun, what kind of power it’s got,” he said. “That’s quite honestly the question I’m most asked by the kids.”

The prospect of having more adults carrying guns on campus worries him. Administrators and teachers have many other duties and can’t focus solely on school security as he can. They also lack the extensive weapons training he has.

“If you get in an altercation, can you deal with that altercation and keep control of your weapon?” Washington asked.

He also worries about educators and staff making bad judgments in a crisis.

“If you’re not trained to deal with it, how can you assess what is dangerous or what is not?” he asked.

Financial concerns

Prior to Sandy Hook, partly in response to the weak economy, many school districts cut back on school security. The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates about 7,000 are at work across the country, roughly half as many as before the economic downturn, an estimate based on attendance at the organization’s annual conventions.

Many educators say federal funding sources also have dwindled. Bossier Parish school officials echoed that sentiment when they spoke to the Louisiana House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

Bossier Parish schools employ 13 resource officers for 14 campuses at a cost of about $1 million per year, Security Director Danny Dison told the committee. The district would like to add resource officers in the parish’s 19 elementary schools, but the move would cost an additional $2 million a year, he said.

The district received a $460,000 federal grant in 2009 to implement a comprehensive emergency plan and train school leaders, but those were one-time funds, Dison said.

East Baton Rouge Parish schools also received a federal grant in 2009, followed by Livingston, Lafourche, Ouachita and Caddo parishes in 2010, the last year such funds were awarded, according to the U.S. Education Department’s website.

Livingston Parish officials, like those in Iberville Parish, are being forced to look locally as they weigh how to increase school security. The idea is to add four or five more school resource officers in addition to the three officers currently patrolling Denham Springs, Walker and Watson schools, Superintendent John Watson said.

The district has been in discussions with the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office.

While student enrollment continues to grow in Livingston, the added state financial aid resulting from that is offset by other factors, Watson said.

“We do have financial concerns due to the projections for continued flat or even decreasing funding from the state, plus the increased mandates regarding retirement contributions and some other things,” he said.

Scott Richard, president of the Louisiana School Boards Association, echoed the sentiment among many at the House committee meeting in saying that schools need more funding to expand their security efforts. The last thing districts need is another unfunded mandate, he said.

New federal assistance appears to be on the way. One of Obama’s executive actions calls for a new school safety program with $150 million to hire resource officers, school psychologists, social workers and counselors. The money also could be used to buy school safety equipment, develop and update public safety plans, conduct threat assessments and train crisis intervention teams.

Arming school staff

The financial uncertainty is one reason some groups and policy makers are advocating for cheaper but more controversial solutions, namely arming teachers, administrators or other school staff.

State Rep. Greg Cromer, R-Slidell, said that while he supports the idea of having a resource officer in every school, he doesn’t think schools can afford it.

At the House committee meeting, Cromer brought up the idea of arming teachers, saying, “I know these aren’t their normal roles, but these aren’t normal times.”

In a later interview, he said he had no plans to offer legislation allowing the practice and wants to see what committee chairman Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, proposes first.

“I do believe there are teachers out there who would arm themselves if given the training and had the opportunity to do so, and I don’t think we should put the brakes on that,” Cromer said.

At Hosanna Christian Academy, a private school in Baton Rouge, Principal Josh LeSage made news soon after the Connecticut shooting when he said publicly he was considering allowing one of his administrators to carry a gun.

LeSage said the administrator in question, the school’s dean of students, retired from the U.S. Air Force and has training in firearms but needs to undergo a refresher course. LeSage considers this a special case, however, because of the dean’s familiarity with guns and the fact that the school, built decades ago, has many entry points, making it hard to secure.

“We would certainly never, ever allow teachers to have guns,” LeSage said.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said the roles of educator and enforcement authority are distinctly different.

“You can’t make one the other,” he said.

After the Connecticut shooting, the union posted a safety and violence survey on its website aimed at soliciting feedback from its more than 21,000 members across the state, a survey it plans to keep online until the start of the Legislative session. Monaghan told the House homeland security committee at its Jan. 17 meeting that few of the nearly 1,000 people responding to the survey at that time even mentioned carrying a gun on campus. About 69 percent of those surveyed said yes to the question, “Do you believe the presence of an armed security person is necessary on your campus?”

Pat Cooper, superintendent of Lafayette Parish public schools, said he doesn’t know a single superintendent who thinks arming teachers is a good idea.

“To me, it just means you give more opportunities for students to get a hold of these guns and for accidents to happen,” Cooper said.

After Sandy Hook, the National Rifle Association publicly called for having a resource or law enforcement officer in every school and for arming additional school personnel and even volunteers.

Some educators express more openness to placing guns in the hands of educators, but typically in limited circumstances.

William Dodson is a former superintendent of public schools in Pearl, Miss., a suburb of Jackson, and now runs his own educational consulting business. He was the superintendent on Oct. 1, 1997, when 16-year-old Luke Woodham burst into Pearl High School and killed two students, while also injuring seven others.

Drawing from that experience, Dodson wrote a book in 2009 called “If Only I Had Known: The Life-Saving Solution that Thousands Have Used to Stop School Massacres.”

Dodson noted the high school’s then-assistant principal, Joel Myrick, helped stop the carnage that day, but Dodson considers Myrick a special case.

“I am not opposed to some handguns being on campus that are in the possession of a law enforcement officer or someone like our Joel Myrick, who was in the National Guard and grabbed his gun from his truck and used it to help apprehend Luke,” Dodson wrote in his book.

Dodson, however, stops short of advocating that anyone who has a permit to carry a gun be allowed to do so on campus.

“Purely from a tactical perspective, it’s difficult for the untrained to successfully shoot an assailant, and it would be a nightmare for law enforcement arriving on a scene to determine who is and isn’t the shooter,” Dodson wrote.

A different approach

Lafayette Parish has been pursuing a different approach, beginning well before Newtown.

The school district is teaming up with local law enforcement to spend $2.1 million over the next year, and more going forward, to add nine administrators and security staff to its largest high schools and an alternative school. Only one of those positions would be an armed resource officer.

The new spending also involves new cameras and alarm systems, plus new servers to ensure more Internet bandwidth, for all 42 parish schools, though the school district has yet to identify where the money will come from. Superintendent Cooper said the new cameras would be accessible to Lafayette Police, unlike current cameras, some of which no longer work.

The plan also involves installing new automatic locking doors, he said.

In the future, Lafayette school officials will look at better fencing and creating more secure school entrances, Cooper said.

He also said the state needs to reconsider its cutbacks to mental health services.

“The truth of the matter is if someone really wants to come in and shoot someone, they’re going to do it,” Cooper said. “What we need are some things to delay it, and have tools to let people know what’s happening.”

Patrick Dobard is superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District, which oversees most public schools in New Orleans, as well as a handful in Baton Rouge and other parts of the state. Dobard said he’s had schools review their procedures. He also noted that New Orleans school security personnel in February plan to participate in training offered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to deal with an “active shooter threat.”

Overall, Dobard said, the schools in New Orleans already have good plans in place.

“Unfortunately, we have a high murder rate and incident rate, so we’ve had to be prepared,” he said.

Melanie Verges, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, said the diocese updated its crisis manual a year ago, and in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, principals are looking again at their school-level plans.

She said Catholic Mutual, which provides property insurance for Catholic schools, is helping show principals best practices and is available for security audits if necessary. Verges also said schools are asking parents and others to look at their schools with fresh eyes for possible vulnerabilities.

“You want the campus to be a place where students feel safe, but are free to learn as well, so you have to balance that out,” Verges said.

St. Helena Parish schools Superintendent Kelli Joseph said the district’s newest tax, passed in November, will help make facility improvements possible, but one area that needs attention is character development and counseling for students.

“Having more counselors, as well as teachers the students trust enough to go to with their problems, would help prevent bigger issues from arising,” Joseph said. “Counselors just don’t have enough time to do that right now because they’re stretched so thin.”

With the Internet and social networking sites, off-campus conflicts get brought onto school grounds, she said.

“Teachers used to see those bullying notes get passed in class. Now they’re being posted on some kid’s Facebook page, and the teachers get blindsided by a dispute they didn’t see coming,” she said.

And, Joseph said, more has to be done to encourage active engagement by families outside the school.

“I know you can’t legislate good parenting, but something on that end has to be done,” she said.