“I remember that day when the fire alarm went off and I didn’t know about it. It wasn’t a drill. I told my kids, ‘You’re not leaving.’ In my head I was thinking, ‘Someone is pulling that alarm and waiting for them to file out like easy targets. We’re going to wait right here until we’re told to get out. The odds of us getting shot are seemingly higher than our building being on fire, so we’re going to wait.”
South Terrebonne High School English teacher Katy Ledet knew she was taking a risk in that moment, but it was a risk she was willing to take to keep her students safe in what has become the status quo setting for U.S. schools in 2018.
A Houma-based grassroots organization, the Terrebonne Safe Schools Coalition, formed in February in response to the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and staff members lost their lives to the violence of an active shooter. Members of the coalition communicated their concerns via social media and shared in a common belief that children’s safety in schools should be a community’s No. 1 priority.
“Every time something like Parkland happens, it chills you to the bone,” says Katie Portier, coalition member and executive director of the Terrebonne Foundation for Academic Excellence. “I wanted to know what we are doing as a community — as teachers, principals, administrators, the school board, businesses, parents — what are we collectively doing to prepare for this happening in our community? I didn’t know the answer. Are we thinking about this or are we just putting our heads in the sand?”
Students are thinking about it.
“When Parkland happened, it was the first time my students, who are ninth- and tenth-graders, talked and asked about it,” says Katy, who is Terrebonne Parish’s High School Teacher of the Year. “They were legitimately voicing concern, wanting to know what they would need to do if it happens here.”
Determined to start a conversation about school safety, the coalition created a Facebook page and began meeting regularly to identify concerns and create an action list complete with suggested solutions.
“The Terrebonne Parish Safe Schools Coalition is about the community as a whole coming together to have a conversation about how we can assist teachers and students,” Katie says. “We are here to help, not to criticize. Our purpose is to hold our community leaders accountable and remind them that they need to inform the public on steps that are being taken to improve school safety. Someone has to ask those questions.”
Through a series of open-meeting discussions with teachers, guidance counselors, mental health professionals and various community members, the coalition concluded that school safety is influenced by three key areas: mental health, security and community involvement. The group’s action list includes proposed solutions to multiple concerns raised in each area.
Cara Rodrigue, coalition member and clinical social worker at the Start Corporation, recognizes that mental health isn’t always a teacher’s area of expertise but proper training would educate them on warning signs to look for in students that need help. This responsibility typically falls on a guidance counselor, who may be assigned to hundreds of students and spends most of the day completing paperwork.
“Mental health is a beast,” Cara says. “Our teachers would greatly benefit from being taught what signs to look for in students that need to be referred out.”
Coalition members Cassi Davis and Adrianna Eschete, both certified instructors for The Well Armed Woman self-defense program, are contributing recommendations on security and conducting trainings for teachers and school personnel on how to respond should they face an active shooter situation. Their Lockdown Plus class is a free four-hour session designed to get attendees thinking about how they can best keep their students and themselves safe in their own school settings.
“A lot of teachers are taught to lock down and stay in place,” Adrianna says. “Our class focuses on that being your first step, but you have to have a plan after that.”
Lockdown Plus is open to anyone working with students, from daycare to adult education.
“This is not a firearms class because you can’t respond with a firearm in a school setting,” Cassi says. “It’s about putting in your head where you think you can help. Find your place. You may not be the person to respond to the active shooter, but you may be the person to put a tourniquet on a student who has been shot. It is about picking your place and committing to it. Our goal is to have teachers leave the lesson thinking about things they haven’t thought about before.”
Bringing the conversation to the community, Terrebonne Safe School Coalition members are discussing how parents can make a positive impact starting with a student’s life at home. Access to technology allows students to be connected via social media, which has contributed to bullying. To educate parents on the effects of bullying and other topics of concern, as well as how they can make a difference, the coalition posts tips and relevant research regularly on its Facebook page.
“We’re trying to nudge our community in the right direction,” Katie says. “It starts with being kind. Our homes need to be a safe place first, and that moves to schools.”
As the 2018-19 school year gets underway, the Terrebonne Safe School Coalition plans to meet regularly to continue advancing the conversation and asking tough questions about key concerns on its action list. The group isn’t trying to tell community leaders what to do. Their goal is to bring an outside perspective and be the voice of the community for an important issue that has a lot of lives at stake.
“Everyone wants to say, ‘What are they going to do about it.’ There is no they. It’s we — what are we going to do as a community?” Katie says. “The coalition stands behind the idea that if we can all do a little bit, we can do a lot.”
How Can You Get Involved?
Follow the Terrebonne Safe Schools Coalition’s Facebook page regularly for posted tips, resources and meeting dates. Attend a meeting to chime in on the ongoing conversation.
Attend Lockdown Plus. The next session will be held Saturday, Sept. 15 from 8 a.m. to noon at First Baptist Church of Houma. The class is free and open to all teachers, administrators and staff from preschool through adult education.