We asked students in Louisiana, where gun ownership is popular and fiercely defended, about campus security. Middle-school students from across the state talked about whether they feel safe at school, how they’re training to respond to active shooter situations and if they favor or oppose gun restrictions. Leigh Guidry, Scott Clause and Amanda McElfresh/USA TODAY Network
Threats last week made against three Lafayette parish schools, including one that forced officials to cancel classes, offered lessons for students, parents and education leaders facing greater security measures at a time of greater safety awareness.
With each threat that comes in the wake of shootings across the nation this year, Lafayette law enforcement and school district officials must face questions like whether to close schools and, in turn, families must adapt to those decisions and the anxiety that accompanies them.
“Anxiety levels are higher than I’ve ever seen them,” said Mike Dorn, executive director of the Macon, Georgia-based Safe Havens International that helps schools improve campus safety.
“The reality is kids are a lot safer than we were as kids,” Dorn said, citing increased research, training and technology in security and mental health. “I caution people, ‘Don’t confuse increased awareness with increased risk.'”
Lafayette students and parents got a glimpse last week of that increased awareness after schools dealt with the series of threats.
The week began with Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s deputies and school officials responding to a threat identified by Dawn Weimer, principal of Dr. Raphael A. Baranco Elementary School. A woman Monday morning told Weimer that Raylin James had made threats verbally and in text messages, “stating she’s going to shoot up/blow up the school,” according to a police account of the incident.
Authorities decided Monday to place the school on a low-key security alert, known as a “soft lockdown” that allowed teaching and other activities to continue inside the school while the campus was secured.
But on Tuesday, authorities decided to cancel classes and advised parents not to bring their children to school. Later that day, deputies arrested James, 28, charging her with terrorizing. The sheriff’s office said the incident was related to a domestic dispute and the threats referenced students at the elementary school, although they have not identified her relationship to the school or students.
Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s deputies arrested two students Friday accused of making threats against David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy and Edgar Martin Middle School. Authorities have not released additional details about the incident.
Parents of David Thibodaux students received alerts Friday from Principal Jeff Debetaz, but Edgar Martin parents were not notified, Lafayette Parish School Board President Justin Centanni said.
“They weren’t notified, because we weren’t aware,” Centanni said. “That’s the answer, but it’s a bad answer.”
All three suspects have been charged with terrorizing, which state law defines as:
“The intentional communication of information that the commission of a crime of violence is imminent or in progress or that a circumstance dangerous to human life exists or is about to exist, with the intent of causing members of the general public to be in sustained fear for their safety; or causing evacuation of a building, a public structure, or a facility of transportation; or causing other serious disruption to the general public.”
Sentencing upon conviction comes with a fine of up to $15,000 or imprisonment up to 15 years, or both.
Baranco reopened to staff and students Wednesday after James was arrested and deputies said the threat was eliminated. David Thibodaux and Edgar Martin continued regular operations Friday.
This is the second year school resource officers have been placed at all Lafayette Parish schools. The program is overseen by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office and includes municipal officers.
The decision for David Thibodaux to remain open Friday came “with the guidance of authorities and all information received,” according to Debetaz’s email.
But Edgar Martin families weren’t notified because of what seemed to be a miscommunication between law enforcement and the district, Centanni said.
Campuses were safe despite Edgar Martin parents not receiving notice, he said, but “we need to improve our communication structure.”
Dorn, a national school safety consultant who has worked in the security field for 39 years, said the key to facing a threat is the preparation put in before there is one. He also advocates responding with a multidisciplinary approach that includes law enforcement, school personnel and mental health officials.
“They’re not waiting until they get a threat to decide what to do,” he said.
That means training, which school district employees across Louisiana and the country undergo each year.
Dorn’s organization has members of the team — police, district administrators, counselors and more — practice together to develop responses to different scenarios in a short amount of time.
“The team has to make some quick decisions,” Dorn said. “It gets the team used to working together, like with other types of emergency preparation.”
Lt. John Mowell, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, said once a threat is identified, authorities provide that information to patrol or detectives to investigate.
“Day or night, whenever it comes in, they’re jumping into action,” Mowell said. “Student safety and the safety of faculty are the most important.”
And they work with district and school administration to determine what’s in the best interest of students and others on campus.
A school can be put on lockdown and secured — nobody comes in or goes out — even if a threat has nothing to do with the student population, Mowell said. If police are chasing a suspect nearby, for example, a school can be notified and placed on lockdown.
It can be “anything that could spill over to the school,” Mowell said. That’s usually done through the school resource officer on hand, who communicates with the principal.
The decision to close a school is made by district leaders based on information provided by police, Mowell explained.
Dorn cautions districts and other clients that being unpredictable and varied in responses is safest. Attackers look for patterns to inform future attacks.