Taylor calls for review of schools’ readiness

Superintendent Bernard Taylor says the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., are prompting him to rethink the East Baton Rouge Parish school system’s approach to school security, ranging from how schools are built to the availability of mental health services.

Speaking Thursday to the School Board, Taylor said he has called for a review of the “state of readiness of all of our buildings, including this one.”

“If something were to happen, look at how we’re seated,” Taylor told the board members, arrayed in a semicircle in the board meeting room on South Foster Drive. “Could all of us safely exit this building and safely exit this area?”

He said he wants to update the school district’s readiness study, which was conducted during the 2008-09 school year. He said he’d like to pay for improvements in school security and school construction using money from a 1-cent tax plan first approved by voter in 1998; however, that issue requires more legal research. Depending on the need identified, he said, the School Board should not rule out seeking the help of the general public for more money and resources if needed.

Taylor also said he is looking to find a way to pay for more mental health services for children. Specifically, he’s looking to see if money earmarked for the school system’s I CARE drug and crisis counseling program can be “repurposed to provide more mental health services.”

The deployment of school security is also getting a review. The school system uses off-duty East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies as school resource officers. Every high school has a resource officer all day, and deputies float school to school when it comes to elementary and middle schools.

“At certain campuses, a daily physical presence of security personnel is something we want to look at,” Taylor said.

Overall, though, Taylor said Baton Rouge public schools are generally safe and have good personnel. He credited students and their willingness to report problems to adults.

“They inform us in a very timely manner of circumstances that are amiss, and it’s incumbent on us to pay attention to that,” Taylor said.

He also said it’s important not to forget that many schoolchildren in Baton Rouge witness horrific things every day.

“Yet they still have hope, and they still see bright possibilities,” Taylor said.

Taylor said safety consciousness should extend to the neighborhoods surrounding a school. He noted that earlier this week a shop owner overhead a customer and called the police, prompting an arrest that may have headed off a school incident. The superintendent said he is asking principals to enlist more businesses in helping keep schools secure.

“I’m going to ask (principals) to knock on all those doors and ask them to be extra eyes and ears,” he said.

Board Vice President Tarvald Smith said parents have to be vigilant as well, especially in preventing their children from taking their personal guns out of the house. He noted the arrest earlier this week of two students after a loaded handgun was found hidden in a garbage can at Park Forest Middle School.

“I have a plea to the parents,” Smith said. “Know what the kids, not necessarily just what they are taking to school, but what they are taking out of the house.”