Anne Willkens Leach said she’s confident of the Diocese of Rochester’s security plan to protect Catholic-school students. Even so, the Newtown, Conn., tragedy has spurred her to new levels of vigilance.
“We’ve come to the realization that anything can happen anywhere, at any time,” said Willkens Leach, the diocesan superintendent of schools. “You just can’t be too careful.”
In light of the massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, Willkens Leach convened a Jan. 17 workshop at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Gates for all diocesan-school principals to review procedures in the Diocesan Safety Manual. Principals were charged to conduct further discussions with faculty and staff to heighten awareness and gauge proper responses concerning potential acts of violence.
“We want to be confident that our plan is up to date, that every single school has a plan and knows it well,” Willkens Leach said.
For instance, she noted that every diocesan school building is locked during the school day, and visitors must be buzzed in by identifying themselves via intercom. They also may be asked for photo identification if they’re not recognized by school personnel. Willkens Leach said this can be off-putting for longtime parents who feel they should have earned the school’s trust, but that such measures are not meant to offend: “It has to become a necessity.”
Jonathan Schott, diocesan coordinator of adult, catechist and family formation, also attended the Jan. 17 workshop. He said he’s likewise emphasizing to religious-education coordinators and teachers throughout the diocese that they must review the Diocesan Safety Manual.
“You do need to do a fire drill and an evacuation drill, checklists, exit procedures — everybody has to be on the same page,” Schott said. He pointed out that this level of caution is vital for faith-formation programs, which are operated primarily by volunteer staff and often take place at night and/or in buildings that afford easier access than do Catholic-school settings. For example, he said religious-education classrooms may be in a parish building where Mass or other activities concurrently take place, thus increasing the possibility of an unchecked intruder.
Willkens Leach said the Jan. 17 workshop — which included presentations from the Rochester Police Department and a former public-school superintendent — also addressed the importance of reaching out to people who might turn violent, such as students who feel alienated or are otherwise struggling emotionally. Workshop participants also examined how they might prayerfully discuss tragedies such as Newtown with their students.
Schott, meanwhile, noted that the diocesan Department of Evangelization and Catechesis recently has presented workshops on root causes of violent behavior: bullying, suicidal thoughts and depression.
The principals’ workshop took place one month after the Dec. 14 mass shooting in which a lone gunman, Adam Lanza, took the lives of 20 Sandy Hook students and six teachers. One measure proposed during the ensuing public debate has been placing armed security guards at schools, but Willkens Leach and Schott said the diocese is not considering such a move at this time. They noted that no known security breaches leading to acts of violence have occurred in diocesan schools or faith-formation settings.
On the other hand, Willkens Leach emphasized “we don’t want to get lax. We don’t ever, ever want to be complacent.”
Schott agreed, saying that the Connecticut shootings erased any complacency that may have existed previously.
“You can’t call it a silver lining, but (Newtown) gives you a chance to put things in perspective,” he remarked.Tags: Catholic Schools