Nonpublic school leaders grapple with safety rules

Whether classrooms are locked during instruction time in non-public schools should be left to principals, members of a panel that advises Louisiana’s top school board said Tuesday.

The issue surfaced during a briefing on a new state law aimed at making classrooms safer in the wake of an elementary school shooting in Connecticut last year that left 20 students and six adults dead.

Officials of the Nonpublic School Council, which advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, generally endorsed a wide range of changes that the Legislature required for the state’s more than 1,300 public schools.

But Melanie Verges, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, and others questioned the need for a public school rule that requires classroom doors to be locked during instruction time. “When I was a principal, kindergartners would leave to go to the restroom and the doors automatically locked and it was unnerving to them,” Verges said after the meeting.

“Some of our principals may have a problem with that,” she said.

“Kids have to have a way to get in and out of the classroom on a regular basis,” Verges said. “I think schools should be site-managed, that’s all.”

The state has 387 non-public schools approved by BESE, mostly Catholic.

The issue on Tuesday was a spinoff from the key bill, Act 50, to beef up existing safety regulations in the wake of the shootings and how to try to avoid them in Louisiana. The requirement that classroom doors be locked while schools are in session is one of the key features for public schools.

Jan Daniel Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, echoed Verges’ concerns on that point.

Lancaster said that, since school configurations vary, whether classrooms are locked should be decided by local education leaders. “All of our schools are different,” she said.

Verges said there may be less need to lock classrooms if the school is secured, such as by locking entry points.

However, officials in schools with doors that open to outdoor areas may back the classroom lockdown requirement.

The state law approved earlier this year requires BESE, working with the council, to adopt tougher rules that address school safety in non-public schools.

That includes how to respond to a school shooting or other violent incidents on campus, on a school bus or at a school-related activity.

The 11-member council generally endorsed other directives aimed at public schools.

They require that:

Schools draft a crisis management plan prepared by the principal and local law enforcement officials, with input from parents, students and teachers.

School employees undergo training to carry out the plan.

Schools undergo a safety drill in the first 30 days of the school year to rehearse the plan.

Erin Bendily, assistant state superintendent of education, described the school safety changes to the panel.

Bendily said state officials will prepare a draft of the new policy for consideration by the panel at its next meeting.

Any changes approved will be submitted to BESE and, if cleared there, would become part of the policies that govern Catholic and other non-public schools.