While some schools and students nationwide will participate in a walk-out against gun violence March 14, the Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans has taken a different, more faith-filled response.
All schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans have been asked to simultaneously hold 17 minutes of prayer – one minute for each victim of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida – March 14 at 10 a.m. The prayer dedication will begin with a rosary, followed by the archdiocesan prayer against violence, murder and racism – a prayer that is recited aloud by Catholics at every Mass.
“We didn’t hear of any schools or students participating (in the walk-out), but we were hearing from our school communities, ‘What could we do, what could we offer in support of lessening gun violence?’” said Dr. RaeNell Houston, superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Houston coordinated a prayerful response with associate school superintendent Martha Mundine and Sister of Mount Carmel Mary Ellen Wheelahan, safe environment coordinator.
“Sister Mary Ellen suggested the 17 minutes of prayer,” Houston said, an idea that came before the national walk-out was announced. “In lieu of walking out, why don’t we let our kids do an intentional 17 minutes of prayer? Sister Mary Ellen thought to start with a rosary and end with the Family Prayer against violence, murder and racism for our country and not just our community.”
“Our children deserve to be safe in our school communities,” Houston said. “But we felt intentional, dedicated prayer would yield more fruitful results than a walkout. I am a witness to how God answers prayer. And we felt our time was best utilized and our statement would be bold if we dedicated that 17 minutes of prayer on behalf of the Florida victims and our country and for the safety of our children.”
Houston said several school administrators have thanked her for coordinating this unified effort in solidarity against gun violence.
Revisit safety protocols
In past years, the Office of Catholic Schools has made active shooter preparedness training available to area school administrators “to protect students and to prepare faculties and administrators for active shooters,” Houston said.
“All school leaders were required to participate, and administrators were asked to reach out to local law enforcement agencies to go over protocols, walk their campus and give feedback on how they can make campuses safer,” she said.
An upcoming session March 26 (with a March 20 registration deadline) is being held at the Airport Hilton, 901 Airline Drive in Kenner, with former school superintendent Dr. Jan Lancaster, who has worked extensively with first responders from civil parishes, and with Greg Lapin of VATA (Vulnerability Assessment and Threat Analysis) Training Group, a private company that trains schools and businesses to respond to shooting threats.
“I have asked all school administrators to revisit their protocols, practice their drills and make sure they implement some type of buzzer or security measure – whether it is a key card, physical buzzer at single entrance,” Houston said. “Most schools require visitors to report to the office and either sign in or show their ID and get a badge.” And most have fences around their perimeter as a first barrier of safety.
Share locally, nationally
Sister Mary Ellen and Mundine have been combing resources on school violence and active shooters to better prepare local Catholic school leaders for such an event and to make sure they are doing everything possible to keep students safe on campus.
In the 2017-18 school year, the archdiocese collaborated with Crimestoppers in a program called P3Campus in which students in kindergarten through 12th grade can anonymously report a tip on suspicious behavior, bullying and threats online through an app. Crimestoppers then notifies Sister Mary Ellen and Mundine, and they notify the principals.
“It is a wonderful program,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “We’ve gotten some tips this year, and we’ve called a principal.” The most common things reported have been suicide threats, bullying and drugs. “Students know things before the administration. This can help prevent a tragedy from happening.”
Sister Mary Ellen and Mundine also attended a webinar with Sandy Hook Elementary representatives (SandyHook.org) and asked if they would work with Catholic schools.
“SandyHookPromise.org. is willing to work with us on anything,” Sister Mary Ellen said.
Also in church parishes
Sister Mary Ellen also has conducted four active shooter violence prevention trainings called “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” in church parishes with Deacon Edward Beckendorf; Dr. Alice Hughes, director of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education; and the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“We are addressing this issue and are continuing to work with schools (and parishes) as they walk through their processes,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “Most, right now, are reviewing. … Our goal is to get all police or sheriff’s offices to work with their Catholic parishes in their civil parishes.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.