N.O. schools respond after Conn. killings

Schools in the metro New Orleans area responded to Friday’s school shooting in Connecticut by reviewing safety plans, reassuring parents and, in some cases, offering counseling to children who are struggling with the tragedy that claimed 28 lives.

Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent Stan Smith said that as soon as the board was aware of the shootings Friday, a general notice of heightened alert was sent to all their direct-run schools advising them to add an extra level of diligence in all observances and activities.

Smith also said the district is making sure crisis plans are up to date and that they incorporate best standards.

School leaders and teachers are trained to be observant of emotional issues that may arise among students, and counselors and social workers will be made available wherever needed, he said. But Smith acknowledged that “sometimes when we are doing the very best we can, certain events are hard to totally eliminate.”

Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard released the following statement: “As educators, we pause and reflect on our own local schools and question how we would respond if faced with an unimaginable act of violence. In response to this tragic news, the RSD has asked that school counselors be available to respond to the emotional needs of our teachers and students. We have increased security patrols around ... our schools to help ease any safety concerns. Also, I have already started reaching out to our school leadership to ask that they review their crisis management response methods with their staff.”

In a landscape of numerous charter operators and multiple governing boards, charter school operators also met to take their own steps in response. For KIPP, which runs eight schools in New Orleans, spokesman Jonathan Bertsch said that the charter operator is reviewing safety and security at each facility and making sure students feel safe and that parents are assured that their children are in a safe place. But in a city accustomed to violence, Bertsch said that the schools are always on guard.

In Jefferson Parish, Superintendent James Meza sent out a letter to parents and families on Friday, in which he said that while rare, the tragedy, “serves as a reminder of the duty we have as educators to protect the precious lives that you entrust to us on a daily basis.”

Immediately after learning of the shooting on Friday, Meza wrote that all Jefferson Parish schools were asked to double check security measures and emergency procedures.

To address the emotional impact, the district set up a parent and employee assistance hot line, manned by trained social workers and psychologists. The hotline, at (504) 349-8999 is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with translators available for Spanish, Vietnamese, and Arabic. Spokeswoman Monica Pierre said that within two hours the line had received about 15 calls.

Meza’s letter also encouraged parents set up conferences with principals or teachers if they notice their children are having a difficult time, as well as included a tip sheet for talking to children. The first tip suggests, “If your child asks about the incident, give a simple, honest, age-appropriate answer. You don’t have to go into details about it.” Another advises, “Children grieve in different ways, so don’t force them to share. Just be a good listener” and spend extra quality time with them.

Jan Lancaster, superintendent for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, sent out a letter asking all schools to review crisis and emergency plans and to share information with parents. Another email was sent regarding how to talk to different age groups about tragedies.

One school in St. Tammany Parish, did have a brief lockdown Friday, spokeswoman Meredith Mendez said. Administrators at Madisonville Elementary school heard what they thought sounded like gunfire and immediately called the Sheriff’s Office and went on lockdown. Deputies gave the all-clear after about 30 minutes, she said.

The school is in a rural area, and the sounds might have been hunters, Mendez said. But she noted that the school and law enforcement personnel would have taken the same steps on any day, and the timing was coincidental.

The East Baton Rouge Parish and Ascension Parish Sheriff’s offices announced Monday they would be increasing 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.

Law enforcement presence is also being beefed up on campuses in Zachary, Iberville Parish and West Baton Rouge Parish, where Superintendent David Corona said the increase in uniformed patrol officers would help the district get through the holidays until school officials could discuss possible long-term solutions.

Advocate staff writer Heidi Kinchen contributed to this report.