School security expert addresses educators in BR

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Sonayia Shepherd, an international safety expert, speaks to a group of mostly educators Tuesday about school security. Her talk was part of the 'distinguished speaker' series put on by The Academic Distinction Fund in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Sonayia Shepherd, an international safety expert, speaks to a group of mostly educators Tuesday about school security. Her talk was part of the 'distinguished speaker' series put on by The Academic Distinction Fund in Baton Rouge.

A propped open door. Pictures of students on hallway walls. Boys with untucked shirts. A parking space with the principal’s name on it. Parents bringing homemade cupcakes to school.

These are some of the unlikely but telling signs of a weakened security system that Sonayia Shepherd, a school safety expert, shared Tuesday with an audience of about 160 people, mostly educators, gathered at the Holiday Inn Baton Rouge South on Airline Highway.

Shepherd, chief operating officer with Macon, Ga.-based Safe Havens International, has conducted more than 2,000 safety assessments of schools and written or co-written 16 books on the subject.

Shepherd’s talk was the latest in a “distinguished speaker” series put on by local nonprofit The Academic Distinction Fund. It focuses on early childhood education. The lead sponsor is ExxonMobil.

A former preschool teacher and school psychologist, Shepherd said she knows special ways to scare educators who have let down their guard.

To emphasize the danger of child abductions, especially in custody battles, Shepherd will, with the principal’s permission, temporarily kidnap a child herself via simple persuasion.

“I did a whole (safety) assessment for two hours, walking around the building with a child,” Shepherd said. “That kid got on my nerves so bad, I took him back.”

Shepherd showed pictures of a colleague standing next to a teacher’s car he’d just stolen; the teacher left her keys out in the open on a table.

“If I’m able to do this, that means your access control has some very, very problematic holes in it,” she said.

Shepherd emphasized that while it dominates the current school safety discussion, school shootings are rare, and acts of school violence are rarely random; they are usually targeted.

She played a video of an actor playing an irate parent who unexpectedly pulls not a gun, but a knife on a school secretary, asking the audience how they’d react. The right answer? Immediately find a safer place away from the parent and call for a school lockdown.

“Most people who come into a school with a weapon, they intend to use it,” she said.

Every employee at a school should be ready to call for a lockdown if something is wrong, even without prior permission, and that’s becoming more common in emergency plans, she said.

“If you get fired for saving a bunch of people in a building, you can go on CNN, talk to Anderson Cooper, write a best-selling book and retire,” she said.

Shepherd said the goal is to change schools from easy to harder targets without losing what makes schools special.

“I’m not really telling you anything new,” she said. “I’m telling you to apply what you already know in a meaningful manner.”