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2/7/2013 10:30:00 AM
Schools review safety in wake of shootings
Deacon Dick Thiesen of Christ Our Light parish in Loudonville and his wife, Joan, wrote to the pastor of the Catholic parish in Newtown to express their support: Their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren attend the Connecticut church.

"[We] have worshipped many times with your faith community and you were so kind to allow me to give [my grandson] his First Communion and to baptize [my granddaughter]," Deacon Thiesen wrote. "And so, we feel a special affinity with all the people of Newtown on this dark night...Our faith community will offer prayers [for] those who have gone to the Lord, for all who mourn, and for all who minister to them. May God give you and your team strength and wisdom to be His presence amid this profound sorrow."


The Albany diocesan Catholic Schools Office has launched a review of its emergency protocols in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings that killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults in December.

A committee came together to revise and update the emergency plans at each of the Diocese's 23 schools, provide training from first responders and crisis managers and help schools forge relationships with local law enforcement agencies.

The process will take three to six months; the goal is to make all members of school communities more vigilant in keeping students safe.

"Events like this have heightened our awareness," said Michael Pizzingrillo, diocesan superintendent, adding that schools already regularly review their crisis plans, which include instructions in the case of bomb threats, accidents, natural disasters and more, as well as everyday rules regarding visitors.

In addition, schools already conduct evacuation and lockdown drills and collaborate with local first responders.

Be alert
"All schools strive to be as safe as possible," Mr. Pizzingrillo said; but "complacency is the enemy of preparedness. [The shooting was] concerning because it hits us at the core of our hearts as educators. It rattles us and makes us aware that there's a vulnerability."

Already, the Albany Police Department has begun evaluating the security of the four Catholic schools in the city of Albany; similar evaluations are occurring elsewhere.

Officials at St. Augustine's School in Troy revamped procedures and refreshed teachers on fire drills, lockdowns, short-term sheltering and more just days after the Newtown shootings, according to principal Joseph Slichko.

Now, visitor passes must be worn by anyone who's not on the school's staff - even diocesan Schools Office staff. Before the incident, students would sometimes let a parent in through a side door, but there is now a strictly enforced rule that everyone uses the front door.

St. Augustine's also enlisted the help of a certified inspector from the New York Metro InfraGard Alliance to check the doors and windows in the building, as well as a locksmith who tested the locks. The school has security cameras on every door.

"We're not going to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we know what we're doing," Mr. Slichko said. "If we can do everything that's common sense to eliminate the threat as much as possible to keep our kids safe, [we will]. It's kind of shaken us up a little bit because Newtown is a similar school. This can happen to anyone. It's not just big districts anymore."

It's also not "the stranger off the street anymore doing these acts," he said. "It's someone you know."

At meetings following the tragedy, St. Augustine's parents have raised the issues of security guards, a second set of glass doors at the school's entrance, gates around the campus and more. But the group decided such measures will "change the school environment, and you're not guaranteed to stop [tragedies]," Mr. Slichko said. He's advising staff instead to "be smart, keep things normal and don't feed into what the copycats could do."

Mr. Pizzingrillo said the goal during the evaluation period is to "continue to be as vigilant as we've been. I think we need to be proactive in making sure we are prepared for any type of emergency."

Spiritual comfort hasn't been forgotten, either: At St. Augustine's School, for example, students have been encouraged to pray for Sandy Hook Elementary School victims and families, for first responders and for the shooter. The younger children haven't quite grasped the reality of the events, said Mr. Slichko, but fifth- and sixth-graders have been asking a lot of questions.

The most common one is, "How can God let this happen?"

This can be difficult to answer, the principal said: "You talk about free will. Although He created us in His image and likeness, we have the ability to make choices and the opportunity to ask for forgiveness."

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