With a broom simulating a weapon, attendees at an FBI-sponsored “Active Shooter” training class practice incapacitating the shooter as a “last resort” in the event of an attack. Representatives of several parishes attended the March 15 training in Omaha designed to help houses of worship implement security measures to ensure the safety of their congregations. MIKE MAY/STAFF

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Catholic parishes, schools take measures to ensure safety

News reports about acts of violence perpetrated at schools and houses of worship across the United States never fail to shock.

According to statistics from Lifeway Research, a Christian-based firm that studies faith-related issues, 20 fatal church shootings have occurred in the United States since the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado, including an incident in February that resulted in the death of five people at a church in Sacramento, California. The church shooting resulting in the most deaths, 26 (including an unborn child), occurred at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017.

And, research conducted by the Washington Post identified more than 200 gun violence incidents on school properties since 1999, resulting in 137 deaths, with the highest annual total occurring last year with 34 deaths.

As safety concerns grow, more and more Catholic parishes and schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha have taken, or are considering, extensive measures to ensure the safety of parishioners, students and staff.

“I’ve been very concerned over the years about security,” said Deacon Lonnie Dineen of St. Gerald Parish in Ralston.

“About four years ago, with all the active shootings going on and stuff that was going on in different churches throughout the United States, I was very concerned, so I started working on security for our locations and developed an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure). Two years ago, I enlisted help and we formed a security team.”  

The security team, made up of 11 parishioners, initially discussed potential safety improvements that could be made at St. Gerald. They also explored funding options, knowing the parish had a tight operating budget because of a decline in weekly offerings during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

SECURITY ENHANCEMENTS

During those discussions, they became aware of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP), which provides dollars for security enhancements and activities to nonprofits considered to be at risk of a violent incident.

St. Gerald’s security team submitted a detailed application for the grant in 2021 and learned last fall that the church had been awarded more than $96,000. The parish was among the first nonprofits in Nebraska to receive grant funding from the program, according to Fred Puetz, a member of St. Gerald’s security team.  

Approximately $75,000 was earmarked for the purchase of equipment, including intrusion detection sensors, cameras, magnetic door locks, swipe card technology, radios and headsets. As a result, the number of cameras inside and outside the church increased from four to 18.  

“We’ve got the ability to film any kind of event that might occur,” Deacon Dineen said.  

The magnetic doors at the church require swipe card entry. The doors also have alarm capabilities that send a message to a smartphone and the alarm monitoring company in case a door is left open for an extended period during times that Mass or other gatherings are not taking place – indicating a possible security breach.  

St. Gerald also has a parking lot security team in place for every Mass. Their radios and earpieces allow ushers inside the church to communicate with parking lot security team members during Mass. Data gathered by the Center For Homicide Research shows about 40 percent of church shootings take place outdoors in the parking lot. 

Deacon Dineen said the parish’s remaining grant funds are being used for “things more people related,” such as active shooter awareness training and armed security protection.  

“What we budgeted there was to have either a retired or active-duty police officer on site during our weekend Masses,” he said. “We budgeted $50 an hour to pay for that. FEMA will only cover that for one year – they consider it a soft or operational cost.”

‘I FEEL SAFER’  

Pat Seier, a 21-year parishioner and sacristan at St. Gerald, said she never envisioned the day that parishioner safety would become a major concern for her church, but she is grateful for the measures being taken. 

“As a parishioner, I feel safe when I walk in there,” she said. “I don’t really think about not being safe – I’m at the church, but as a person who volunteers there and sees a lot of comings and goings of people …, there is concern. 

“I think locking the doors when there aren’t a lot of people around – when the church isn’t basically open – I feel safer when I’m there.” 

Seier said she has mixed feelings about locking the doors during Mass, something that’s been discussed but not implemented at St. Gerald. 

“During the time we have Mass going on, that’s probably the most logical time someone would come in and try to do harm,” she said. “I know there’s thoughts that they’ll be locking the doors after Mass starts. I’m a little concerned because I don’t think that’s a very welcoming thing, but I also think it’s somewhat necessary.”

CONTROLLED SCHOOL ACCESS

Safety is also a high priority at schools, such as St. Columbkille in Papillion.  

St. Columbkille School Principal Brandi Redburn said the school has taken steps in recent years to secure entrances to the main building and preschool. Visitors can only access the school through the main entrance, where security doors were installed four years ago.  

“That door, you have to be buzzed through, just like you have to be buzzed into the main office,” she said. “Once kids are in school, they can get through and get into the office.  

“It’s the same in the preschool. There is a secured vestibule so if you go into those doors, you would not be able to go anywhere without a key.”  

An indoor/outdoor security system at the school allows staff to monitor multiple areas and provides recorded data should an incident occur.

Another step St. Columbkille has taken is the implementation of a “badge” program, which utilizes off-duty law enforcement officers, who are either current or former parents of St. Columbkille students, to secure the church when school children attend Mass. All doors at the church are also locked when children are at Mass. 

Additionally, Redburn said evacuation, lockout and lockdown training drills are conducted at least two times each during the school year.  

“The evacuation drill is a fire drill, but it could be used any time we need to get safely out of the building,” she said. “We also have lockout and lockdown procedures.”  

A lockout would be implemented if a threatening or dangerous situation were occurring somewhere near the school.  

“During the lockout, we have adults that are assigned to go to every exterior door and just monitor them,” Redburn said. “During a lockout, it’s business as usual inside the school. If anybody is outside on the playground, they come in.”  

A lockdown would occur in the event of a threat inside the building.  

“That’s when teachers shut their windows, lock the doors and there’s no activity inside the building. Everybody stops what they’re doing when we lock down,” Redburn said.

“We follow the (national) Standard Response Protocol and everything is direct. There’s no code word. We don’t try to pretend like there’s nothing going on. We say, ‘This is a lockdown. Lock your doors, get in your rooms, close the curtains,’ those kind of things.”  

Redburn said the drills can be “scary” for the students, so parents are notified ahead of time when the drills are going to take place, allowing them time to process the protocols with their children. Teachers also discuss the drills to ease their students’ fears.  

Redburn said the school has never had to implement an actual lockdown, but they have had lockouts, including one earlier this year.  

“It turned out to be absolutely nothing,” she said. “There was a car sitting outside that nobody recognized, and it sat there for a long time, so we did a lockout until we figured out what it was. An announcement was made at school and later in the day parents were notified of what happened.” 

PREPAREDNESS TRAINING

Safety measures such as those taken at St. Gerald and St. Columbkille are becoming common across the country, according to FBI Special Agent in Charge Eugene Kowel from the agency’s Omaha office. He was one of the presenters at an all-day “Active Shooter Awareness, Response and Preparedness Training” session in March at the Jewish Community Center in Omaha, attended by representatives of religious congregations across the city. 

“We invited every church, synagogue, mosque, temple – every house of worship in the area to send a representative,” Kowel said. “This is the first time we’ve ever done an event like this on this scale.   

Representatives from several Omaha-area parishes attended the training, including Dan Falcon, a member of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Omaha and a member of the parish’s safety team.

The training session included an overview of potential threats and trends, guidance on how to report suspicious activity, discussion of “Run, Hide and Fight” tactics, active shooter scenarios and the teaching of basic first aid in a trauma situation.

Falcon, who is beginning work on an SOP for St. Frances Cabrini, found the training to be helpful, not only for preparing for violent incidents, but also for other types of situations, including weather and medical emergencies.

He complimented the FBI and Omaha police for reaching out to houses of worship and for the information they provided such as defensive measures to put in place, how to go about training staff, resources that are available, and their willingness to provide on-site consulting and assistance with that training.

It comes down to readiness, Falcon said.

“It’s all about setting up a defensive posture … training people like ushers to look out for suspicious activity, what steps to take if they see something, who do they call,” he said. “The ushers are your first line of defense.”

He added that providing information letters to parishioners can also help everyone to be prepared and know how to react in an emergency.

“We hope people will take these lessons back to their congregations and kind of spread the message,” Agent Kowel said.

“To be targeted at your place of worship – a place that’s meant to be sacred where people go to pray – is really one of the most heinous acts of violence that can happen. We hope it never happens in our community but if it does, we want to make sure congregations are empowered, prepared and able to survive an attack and take the best course of action that they can.”

 

Editor Mike May contributed to this report.