South La. area school districts step up security

School districts and law enforcement agencies across much of south Louisiana said they are stepping up campus security and reviewing crisis management plans in the wake of Friday’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., a shooting that claimed 28 people, including 20 children.

The East Baton Rouge Parish and Ascension Parish sheriff’s offices said Monday they will increase patrols around schools during peak hours.

“It’s just to help parents, teachers, staff and the community feel safer,” said Casey Rayborn Hicks, spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Every East Baton Rouge Parish school has an off-duty deputy who patrols as a school resource officer. Elementary and middle school officers patrol multiple schools but are assigned one as a home base, said Herman Brister Sr., the school system’s associate superintendent for instructional support services.

Brister said Baton Rouge Constable’s Office had 20 to 25 officers visit schools on Monday to make sure everything was OK.

Law enforcement presence is also being beefed up at schools in Zachary, Iberville Parish and West Baton Rouge Parish.

West Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent David Corona said the increase in uniformed patrol officers would help the district get through the holidays until school officials can discuss possible long-term solutions for improving security in the parish’s schools.

Officials in other school districts, including Baker, Livingston Parish and Assumption Parish, said they are talking to local law enforcement agencies in their jurisdictions about strengthening security on their campuses, though some said funding could be a problem.

Baker School Superintendent Ulysses Joseph said he talked Monday with Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps about the possibility of putting a school resource officer at each of Baker’s five schools, but Knaps said the department’s grant for school security only has enough funds to hire one full-time officer.

Joseph said a staff member will meet with East Baton Rouge Parish school officials Tuesday to learn how that district pays for sheriff’s deputies in certain schools.

School officials across the region, including Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes and the Recovery School District, are also urging an extra level of diligence in observation and activities and reviewing their crisis management plans to determine whether any changes need to be made.

Assumption Parish Superintendent Earl Martinez said he wants to form committees that would include faculty and community members to discuss the best course of action during crises.

Wayne Messina, director of security for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said future discussions likely will include stricter enforcement of policies requiring campus visitors to sign in with school officials.

Iberville Parish Superintendent Ed Cancienne sent a letter to principals and staff Monday calling for heightened awareness of security procedures dealing with visitors and urged schools to call 911 immediately in any emergency situation.

Many school officials said they already have extensive plans, including drills for a variety of scenarios, ranging from on-campus shooters to chemical spills, that would prompt lockdowns or evacuations.

Livingston Parish Superintendent John Watson said that parish’s schools ran on-campus, mock drills just last year at Albany High School and Walker High School to prepare for possible shooting incidents. The drills provided training for law enforcement officers from throughout the parish as well as faculty from all of the district’s 42 schools, he said.

Tangipahoa Parish Superintendent Mark Kolwe said some of his district’s schools were scheduled, prior to Friday’s mass shooting in Connecticut, to run similar mock drills Monday, but school officials postponed those drills for fear of raising undue concern or anxiety among students and parents.

Ascension Parish Superintendent Patrice Pujol said such drills are a critical tool for emergency preparedness.

“I think what saved those kids in Connecticut was teachers who had practiced the drills a lot and knew how to think on their feet and how to protect kids,” she said.

Pujol said each Ascension Parish campus is required to perform monthly safety audits to ensure school officials are doing everything possible to keep students safe.

West Feliciana Superintendent Hollis Milton, who met with Sheriff J. Austin Daniel on Friday and will meet again this week, said they feel comfortable with where they are in their plans, “but in these frightening times, we try to stay proactive.”

Some officials question whether every instance is truly preventable.

“We walk a fine line between making our schools safer for our students and our teachers and creating a climate of fear,” Zachary Superintendent Scott Devillier said. “But incidents such as the tragic shootings in Newtown do cause us to re-evaluate our security.”

Advocate staff writers Terry Jones, Charles Lussier, Bret McCormick, James Minton, Robert Stewart and New Orleans bureau staff contributed to this report.