e-mail us
Expert says Catholic schools are safer

NCR Staff

News reports described the March 7 shooting at a Catholic school in Williamsport, Pa., as a first. It was, in fact, at least the third shooting in Catholic schools in the past 10 years.

In 1995 in a Catholic school in Redlands, Calif., an elementary school student shot the school principal in the face. Four years earlier, at a Jesuit high school in Louisiana, one student shot another through the eye with a BB gun.

Despite such cases, Sr. Mary Angela Shaughnessy, an education professor at Spalding University in Louisville, Ky., and an expert on school safety, says she’s convinced that Catholic schools are safer than public schools.

The incident in Williamsport, in which 14-year-old Elizabeth Bush shot and wounded a 13-year-old classmate, Kimberly Marchese, at Bishop Neumann Junior/Senior High School, appears to be the first where a teenage girl has been the assailant. The incident followed by just two days a shooting in a public school in Santee, Calif., where two teens were killed and 13 wounded.

Bush has been charged as a juvenile with aggravated assault and attempted homicide.

Shaughnessy, who has conducted school violence prevention workshops for the past three years, has warned that Catholics schools are not immune to the violence occurring in American public schools. Catholic schools have their share of troubled kids, she says. But Catholic schools are also doing an excellent job of preparing for crises, according to Shaughnessy.

“I’d be really surprised to find a Catholic school that doesn’t have a safety plan. I see a very high level of preparedness,” Shaughnessy said. “I think we’re about as ready as we can be. There are some few, and I emphasize few, schools that aren’t in compliance with what we would consider standard safety procedures.”

An attorney and former school principal who has written widely on the legal issues related to school violence, Shaughnessy is employed as a consultant by many Catholic schools and dioceses. In the fall of 1999 she conducted a workshop in the Scranton, Pa, diocese where Bishop Neumann is located.

Like other Catholic schools in the Scranton, Pa, diocese, Bishop Neumann has a zero-tolerance policy on weapons. Safety measures the school had instituted included security cameras and secured entrances. Students at Bishop Neumann must stow their backpacks in their lockers at the beginning of the day and are required to keep books in clear plastic.

“There is no way you can guarantee the absolute safety of children,” Shaughnessy said. “Nobody would have expected what happened at Bishop Neumann High School, but I also think it’s important not to blow it out of proportion.”

In workshops delivered around the country and in a series of essays distributed by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Shaughnessy discusses what steps schools can take to prevent violence or to minimize its impact when it occurs. She also addresses what she says is a common misunderstanding that Catholic schools don’t need to comply with state law.

Checklists given to school administrators and teachers ask them to describe the worst thing to happen in their schools and call for them to talk to children about whether they feel safe at school. Shaughnessy said a problem area in many schools is emergency drills. “People get lackadaisical about following the rules,” she said. Schools may also want to consider designating a safe area in the building and coming up with a code that will signal to staff and students when they should go there. But the most essential safety measure is a safety audit.

“I always say, ‘Don’t put your janitor in charge of this,’ ” the Sister of Charity nun said. “Walk through the entire building and look for safety problems. This could be a window in a cafeteria that’s open. Unfortunately, there are still places where people chain unused doors, and the problem is you can’t get out. If you recall the 1955 Holy Angels fire in Chicago, that was the problem there.”

Identifying violence-prone students before they act is the best way to prevent school violence. Teachers are advised to look for withdrawn, depressed or angry students, students who seem to have few friends and students who display inappropriate behavior on a consistent basis. Bizarre writing can also be a tip-off. Shaughnessy cites the case of 14-year-old Michael Corneal in Paducah, Ky., who turned in a violent Halloween story for a class assignment shortly before he opened fire on a prayer meeting and killed three students and paralyzed a fourth.

But identifying troubled students can be difficult, particularly because so far unruly students have not committed the shootouts in American schools. “If you notice, it’s not the worst discipline cases who are doing this,” said Shaughnessy. “I think the kids who tend to be discipline problems tend to act out their frustrations that way, whereas the quiet kid broods and then explodes.”

The stereotype that many people have of the violent student is of a young black male, but middle-class white males have perpetrated almost all the shootouts in American schools. “You expect this in Harlem, but it doesn’t happen in Harlem,” Shaughnessy said. “I’d say the Catholic schools in Harlem are among the safest places in the world.”

Shaughnessy said she doesn’t think schools are over-reacting to concerns about violence, but she thinks parents are. “They want armed guards and metal detectors.” She is opposed to both. She also sees a need for common sense. Although she supports a zero tolerance policy for threats, “that doesn’t mean you throw every kid out (of school) for everything,” she says. “If a 5-year old says, ‘I’m going to hit you,’ that’s a threat, but I wouldn’t throw a child out for that.’”

In the 1995 shooting at the Sacred Heart School in Redlands, the school principal survived, but the eighth-grader who fired at him was killed when he slipped while running and the gun in his hand discharged. In the 1991 shooting in Louisiana, a lawsuit later filed charged the school with negligence for not checking students’ lockers for guns. The lawsuit was dismissed.

Given that anybody with a filing fee can file a lawsuit, Shaughnessy said schools need to meet a standard of reasonable prudence. While calling a shooting at a Catholic school “inevitable,” she also believes that Catholic schools are less prone to such incidents than public schools.

“I think there’s a sense of ownership at Catholic schools,” Shaughnessy said. “You’ve got a mission that’s based on the gospel and that’s pretty powerful. Catholic schools really try to get people to care about each other. In the public schools you can’t talk about God, and I think that’s a disadvantage. If I had a child I would scrub floors to send my child to a Catholic school, because I think it’s worth it, because I think the life lessons are so important.”

She noted that Kimberly Marchese’s father in Williamsport came to school the day after the shooting and greeted everyone as they came in the door. At a prayer service that followed, he asked the school community to pray for Elizabeth Bush and her family.

Is there an explanation for the epidemic of school shootings? Shaughnessy says such questions are better answered by a sociologist. But she says she has to believe the media is part of the problem and quotes radio commentator Paul Harvey that “school violence is a communicable disease and newsmen are the carriers.”

“It’s a copy cat syndrome. Kids may be drawn to do something like this for attention,” she said. “They don’t think through that the rest of their life is over.”

What to do when the unthinkable happens

1. Don’t panic. Remember: Students depend on teachers, and teachers depend on administrators. A lack of control on your part can result in chaos.

2. Have your safety plan readily accessible and follow it.

3. Notify appropriate school or district personnel by phone if possible.

4. Designate a single spokesperson for the school or system.

5. While students cannot be prohibited from talking to the press, reporters and photographers can be denied access to the school building.

6. No one has a legal obligation to take serious risks that may result in personal injury or death.

7. Implement a communication plan for persons other than the media. Principals and/or superintendents should meet with faculty and staff, parents and students as soon as possible. In the alternative, written communication should be sent.

8. Give school counselors a primary role.

9. Ask for and utilize outside professional help.

10. Do not talk to attorneys except the school or district attorney. Refer all other attorneys to the school or district attorney. Failing to follow this advice can result in claims that administrators accepted liability.

-- From Sr. Mary Angela Shaughnessy

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001