Working to make our schools safer

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By Carol Nesbitt

The issue of school safety is always on the minds of parents. Parents want to know that schools have a plan in place for all types of emergencies, from fires to intruders to staff or students feeling unsafe for various reasons.
The Archdiocese of Denver is excited to share that they now have someone directly supporting the safety preparedness and plans of the 37 Catholic schools under its watch and care.

Matt Montgomery is a former police officer and award-winning school resource officer (SRO). He’s also a chemistry and forensic science teacher as well as Director of Security and Safety at Holy Family High School. And, as of Nov. 13, he is the new Interim Director of Schools Security and Safety for the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools. The position is new and the first of its kind for the Archdiocese of Denver, but important.

“As a Catholic school community we believe the safety and wellbeing of our students comes first. Time and again we hear our parents rate school safety as one of the top reasons why they entrust the care and formation of their children to our schools. As such, we believe we have a duty and moral obligation in our schools to ensure we are doing everything we can to ensure our children are safe from any type of harm,” said Elias Moo, Superintendent of Catholic Schools. “Historically, each of our schools has had to take on the crucial task of defining and implementing their own safety and security plans and systems. While our schools have certainly gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety of their school community, we believe it is critical in our current reality that we provide our schools with the expertise and qualifications of someone like Matt to support them in really analyzing their plans and assisting them in ensuring best practices are being implemented. It’s the least we can do for our school communities.”

“My role is really to lead a task force with the intention of identifying needs around school safety,” said Montgomery. He says there are a number of great models for school safety around the area, so it’s more about bringing it all together. “All public schools have someone overseeing safety and security, usually with staff members doing threat assessments, suicide assessments and emergency drills, building security, fire drills, and those kinds of things, but there really isn’t a position like this in other dioceses that we are aware of.”

Montgomery says that his job will be taking the variety of practices at schools and helping to bring consistency in efforts across the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic School community. He also says that the term ‘school safety’ is more broad than people realize. “When people think about school safety, they always gravitate to school shootings, but I think we really have to step away from that and realize that school safety and security is an umbrella. It encompasses everything from events prior to an incident all the way through recovery (post-incident).”

The five areas Montgomery is focusing on include:

Prevention
What do we do to create a loving and responsive Catholic community where students and staff feel safe and are empowered and given resources to report any behaviors or activity that is unsafe and counter to our values?

Protection
What systems and proceses do we have to vigilantly monitor for behavior or activity that is harmful to our Catholic community?

Mitigation
What procedures and policies are in place to mitigate issues?

Response
If an incident occurs, how do we respond to that incident? How do we support that school from an archdiocesan perspective? What tools are we able to provide to that school? What relationships do we have with law enforcement and first responders in that community?

Recovery
Recovery begins the second an incident occurs. How do we reunite students with families, provide counseling support and address staff issues in the case of a crisis?

Montgomery says his work will also help establish a plan for the archdiocese in the case of a larger emergency.

“What is our incident command structure going to look like so that we can respond to an incident, while also keeping in mind the unique structure of the various schools beneath the Office of Catholic Schools?”

He’d like to see the Standard Response Protocol — created by the I Love You Guys Foundation — used throughout the school system.

“One of the issues I noticed is that there are a lot of different agencies who respond to various incidents and they don’t know what the other ones are doing,” Montgomery said. “The crisis plan needs to be uniform, created for a specific age group. We need to standardize our crisis plans throughout the AoD and work with the schools to create private plans for each school that is specific to that school, simple plans that outline for administration on how they implement the plan at the moment of crisis.”

One of the biggest things Montgomery will be doing is identifying policies and procedures and training. “This is uniformly saying ‘This is what we’re doing, this is how we’re going to do it, and these are the amount of times we will practice it each year.’” This also includes training of staff on mandatory reporting, the importance of documenting things, and threat assessments that ask the right questions to get a non-biased, vetted approach to assessing threats. “There are a lot of things we can do to mitigate the chance of someone being hurt at a school. That’s by good training, good policies and procedures, and hardening our targets, meaning the physical security of our school buildings,” said Montgomery.

As a teacher, Montgomery says he has a unique perspective. “I’m not just some cop or just an SRO. My heart is in the classroom. I’m a Catholic educator who used to be a cop. My goal is to make sure kids can focus on being a kid and learning, not having to worry about being hurt at school or being bullied or having thoughts of suicide. I want them to feel that school is a safe place. That’s why I do it. I really love doing school safety.”

COMING UP: What parents want most from their child’s school — and how Catholic schools fulfill it

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By Carol Nesbitt

What do parents of school aged kids want most of all from their child’s school?

Safety

Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

It’s probably first and foremost to know they’re safe — not only from physical harm, violence, and drugs, but also other negative influences kids have to navigate in today’s complicated and confusing world, including cultural pressures to do what ‘feels good’ instead of what is right, just and moral.

This past year, some news media outlets questioned the safety of students in Denver’s Catholic schools because of sex abuse from decades ago. The reality is that the Church and all of the Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic Schools have worked diligently to ensure the safety of all students. In fact, many parents say they specifically chose Catholic schools here because they feel their children are safer than the alternatives. But the term “safe” is much broader in today’s society.

“Their physical safety, as well as the safety of their souls, is something that is always on our minds as parents,” said Kelsey Lynch, a parent of two school-aged children. She and her husband, Michael, said that knowing their children were safe in school was one of the main reasons they chose St. Mary’s Catholic School in Greeley.

“St. Mary’s has proven over and over that our children’s safety is on the forefront of their minds,” she said. “They are taking every preventative step possible to keep our children safe from the evils that are so prevalent in our world today. With open communication, facing the hard topics instead of shying away from them, and vetting all people that our kids will come in contact with, we feel a Catholic school is the safest place for our kids to receive an education.”

The safety of their children’s souls is equally as important to mom Kelsie Raddatz and her husband, Justin, who have five children. Their two oldest attend St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Loveland.

“There is truly no greater lesson to learn than to know that you are so incredibly loved by God and that God is so good. These crucial lessons aren’t allowed to be spoken in public schools,” Kelsie said.

Faith

Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

That’s why the Raddatzes make the financial sacrifice to send their kids to St. John’s, with the strong belief that not only will their children be physically safe, but that they will fully understand that their purpose in life is to share Jesus’ love with others through everything they do; whether it be in the classroom or on the playground, speaking to others the way they would speak to Jesus.

“Every single moment is an opportunity to see Jesus present and to serve Him as well,” Kelsie continued. “What a blessed environment for our kids to learn and practice such crucial lessons!”

The Lynches say they can’t do it alone. For their children to become the saints they are called to be, the Lynches know that they need to work in partnership with their school community.

“Our kids’ teachers and classmates get more time with our kids during the week than we do, so it’s important that the people they are surrounded by are also helping them grow into the individuals God created them to be,” Kelsey said. “Our kids are learning what it is really like to have a strong faith family and the importance of a community that stands together in prayer and action to serve each other and the world around them, in both good and trying times.”

Kate McGreevy Crisham and her husband John echo the Lynch’s in their desire to have a strong faith foundation in their children’s education. That’s why they send their kids to St. Vincent de Paul in Denver.

“We are so fortunate in Denver to be able to choose Catholic schools because they are academically excellent AND thoroughly Catholic,” Kate said.

She and her husband wanted their faith to surround their children at home and at school. “We wanted God to be a part — actually the center — of the educational process of drawing out, igniting curiosity, working with challenging concepts and, as important, failing, struggling, and building resilience,” Kate shared. “Catholic schools value that process, encourage it, and love kids through it.”

Character

Photo by Brandon Young

She said she can see Jesus incarnate on a daily basis at St. Vincent de Paul.

“I see Jesus when I see an 8th grade boy stop to high five a group of kindergarteners. When I talk to the teachers of my kids, I see Jesus in their pure interest in what is best for my child — not what I want to hear — yet their words are delivered with professionalism and yes, love.

“From the maintenance staff to the principal, hearts are aligned in the work being done to educate the whole child.”

After exploring various options for preschool for their eldest child, Christy and Scott Kline toured Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, and although there was a free public school across the street, there was no question where they would send their kids. The decision was about so much more than simply educating their child.

“We have a ‘caught caring’ award (at the school) that is multi-faceted,” Christy said “Children are recognized for doing good — not academically — but in ways that benefit society and communities as a whole. Teachers and administration are ‘looking for the good’ in the school and finding it. When you look for something, it stands out.”

She feels that by looking for the best in people, you bring out the best. Kline also believes that strong parental involvement helps keep the school as safe as possible.

“The onus is on all of us to create an open, safe, transparent culture going forward, not just in Catholic organizations, but in all organizations and activities where children are involved,” Christy said.

Academics

Photo by Brandon Young

That same responsibility is on parents to choose schools that will reinforce the values they’re working to teach their children at home. David and Kathy Silverstein have had four children in Catholic schools in Denver over the past 20 years. Although there were many options for schools, including a charter school near their home, once they stepped foot inside St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Longmont, they knew it was the ‘only choice’ for their kids. As their children transitioned into high school, the Silversteins found that Holy Family High School was another perfect fit.

“In today’s world, finding a school that excels at education, sports and extra curriculars is challenging enough, but to find a school, particularly a high school, that prioritizes kindness, morality, personal responsibility, strength of character and just plain old being a good person — that is the uniqueness of Holy Family High School,” said Kathy. “An atmosphere of respect lives within the halls, between teachers, between students. It’s expected.”

For these families and countless others, they have experienced that it is the overall commitment by Catholic schools to keep students safe, to help them truly know they are loved by God, to incorporate faith into every subject area, and to set high expectations for students which reinforces parents’ decision to choose Catholic schools for their kids.

“My greatest desire for my children is for them to know how deeply they are loved by Jesus (and us, too!) and that their whole purpose in this life is to share Jesus’ love with others through every single thing they do,” Kelsie Raddatz said. “The classrooms are such a beautiful example of Jesus’ presence!”