Parish and School Security Program rollout

Larry Schroeder with Life Safety Solutions assesses St. James Cathedral with facilities manager, Larry Lambright, May 16. (MARJORIE DURANTE)

The mission is clear – ramp up security at every single Catholic school, parish, and other diocesan entities across Central Florida. A team of experts is already on the ground in the Diocese of Orlando, completing initial assessments and will continue to do so over the next couple of years.

Risk Manager for the Diocese of Orlando, Tracy Dann, began the annual meeting of pastors and principals May 2 at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Winter Park. She carefully laid out the plans that will roll out over the next few months. Life Safety Solutions will assess 40 schools and 36 parishes in six weeks and make recommendations for improved ways to keep both students and educators safe.

“Sadly, more and more of us have stories related to shootings,” shared Dann. “None of us ever wants that story to be told again.” She revealed the diocese has been working on this process for several years, partnering with leaders across the state to form a vetting committee for school and parish security. The nationwide search led them to Life Safety Solutions. The company is already working closely with the Dioceses of Venice, Palm Beach, and Pensacola-Tallahassee.

Dann went on to explain this will be a 3-year process. During this first year, Life Safety Solutions will begin with all parishes that have schools or free standing early learning centers on campus. The educational facilities and the church itself will be examined for any potential security weaknesses.

The 14-hour review usually starts before dawn and focuses on four key concepts – deterrence, detection, delay and response. “Many people say the only thing we need to do is hire armed police officers in our churches and schools, but that would only be the response piece,” shared Dann. “Life Safety Solutions is looking at a more holistic approach including mitigation and prevention.”

The idea is to enhance some of the great security measures many parishes have already put into place. Father Phil Egitto, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Daytona Beach, already invited local police to educate staff and is happy to accommodate the team from Life Safety Solutions as well. “We don’t want to create a prison, but we do want to be aware,” explained Egitto. “Before Mass I walk through the church and talk to everyone. I size up the situation.”

Father Tom Walden, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish added, “Recently, we had someone come into our church and cause damage in the sanctuary, so naturally there has been concern from our parishioners. Since this incident, we have partnered with Orange County Law Enforcement, installed cameras, and required parishioners to enter the church through the main doors.”

The 26-page security reports for the first round of parishes/schools will be complete in late summer before children return for the 2018-2019 school year. Suggestions will be broken down into 3 categories – high (security issues to be addressed immediately), medium (security issues to be addressed after high risks), and low (issues to be addressed as budget allows). At that time, consultants will return to all campuses to meet with administration and staff to assist with emergency operations plans. President of Life Safety Solutions, Dave Magruder, shared, “We’re going to get a little bit more down and dirty with lockdown, evacuation, crisis response team training and active shooter drills.”

Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Henry Fortier, noted “The goal of these new security procedures ultimately is to create environments that keep our students safe, while still feeling welcoming. God has entrusted His most precious gifts to us, His children. We must do our best to protect them from harm.”

Additional training will also be provided so administrators can better address those who may have mental health needs to allow them to be more proactive. “Mental illness is part of our community,” remarked Bishop John Noonan. “We have to deal with it, but we don’t want to escalate it.”

While security plans will be site specific and take into consideration the uniqueness of each property, there will be minimum standards for every parish and school community. For example, all schools will have a new radio system to communicate internally and to interface with other campuses as well as the diocese in case of emergency. Every person will be required to wear color-coded lanyards so students and staff can easily determine who belongs on campus. A letter is currently being drafted to alert parents of the upcoming security changes and the rationale behind them. It is possible there will be changes in drop-off and pickup protocols for Faith Formation classes in our parishes as well.

Over the next couple of years, similar assessments will be completed for other entities in the diocese. Kevin Casey, Chief Financial Officer for the Diocese of Orlando, said it all began with three pilot schools last year. “We quickly learned you can’t look at anything in isolation. The whole campus is important whether it is a church or a school.” Life Safety Solutions plans to work with every parish, mission, and diocesan entity like Bishop Grady Villas within a span of three years. “Our goal is to make sure we have these comprehensive assessments, so we can see where everyone is in regard to their programs,” added Casey. “There is a level of standardization that has to happen at a minimum. We have to make our best efforts to provide a safe and secure environment.”

Father Miguel Gonzalez, rector of St. James Cathedral, is grateful for the opportunity. “Once the assessment is complete my hope is that we may be able to identify key areas that at times we might take for granted or have overlooked,” he said. “That way, we can improve security issues in a proactive manner without alarming anyone.”

Dann agreed, “We’re headed in the right direction of doing everything that we can as a diocese to enhance the well-being of our staff, parishioners, students.” The team dedicated to this project is making sure it ties back to Catholic teaching every step of the way. “There is an inherent sacredness to each person,” explained Bishop Noonan. “Through our Baptism, God calls us to care for each other. This is an offering of God’s love to each one whom we meet.”

By Jennifer Drow, Florida Catholic Correspondent – May 15, 2018