Sophomore Payton Allen demonstrates a new protocol Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland began this school year. The doors are always locked, and students and staff need electronic access cards to enter. Students also must have identification badges at all times. (Courtesy Olivia Johnson/Central Catholic High School)
Sophomore Payton Allen demonstrates a new protocol Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland began this school year. The doors are always locked, and students and staff need electronic access cards to enter. Students also must have identification badges at all times. (Courtesy Olivia Johnson/Central Catholic High School)
More people died or were injured in mass school shootings in the United States between 2000 and 2018 than in the entire 20th century, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. Thus far, Catholic schools have been spared from such a horrific event, but school leaders know they are not immune. When a gunman killed two people at a Christian church in Texas at the end of 2019, safety again surfaced as a top concern for faith communities and schools across the country.

At Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Portland, administrators and staff are vigilant about reviewing and updating their safety procedures and staying attuned to students’ psychological health. School shooters are almost always a student at the school.

“There’s early identification of a crisis and a focus on being relational,” said Aron Homberg, dean of student management and safety at Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland. “Other Catholic schools do the same thing; we are community-based and get to know the kids, their families, their stories.”

Along with addressing the possibility of an armed shooter, administrators work to ensure that all people who enter school grounds are welcome.

No matter the safety concern, “preparedness is key,” said retired police officer Cathe Kent, director of security at Jesuit High School in Southwest Portland.

Challenges and updates

Oregon has the nation’s second highest rate of unsheltered homeless people, according to a federal report last year. It’s therefore not surprising that while the schools work to live out Catholic social teaching and aid the homeless, they also have safety concerns related to the population, which includes individuals with mental illness.

Trespassing is not common at Central Catholic, but at 7 a.m. one day last year, a mentally ill homeless person walked into the school naked.

Partially in response to this incident, the doors now are locked at all times. Students and staff have electronic access cards to enter and must wear identification badges.

The new protocol already has proven helpful.

Homberg said recently a member of the staff was chased by someone yelling profanities. The staff member made it inside and the person was stopped thanks to the locked doors.

About 100 miles south of Central Catholic is Marist. The Eugene high school sits on 40 acres along the Willamette River, where those without housing often camp.

“We have a transient walk on campus a couple times a year,” said Christi Nicholson, assistant principal at Marist. School administrators communicate regularly with the local police department and “make sure ample people are circulating campus and keeping an eye out,” Nicholson said.

Several of the high schools, including St. Mary’s Academy in Southwest Portland, have hired someone to guard their entrance and intercept any unwelcoming visitors.

St. Mary’s has just one entrance, and “you can’t get into the building without passing the guard,” said Nicole Foran, principal of the all-girls school.

Jesuit conversely has a college-like campus that was “wide open” when Kent arrived five years ago. “I thought, ‘Wow, people could just walk in,’” said Kent, who served the Portland Police Bureau for 25 years, retiring as a sergeant. Other Catholic high schools in the region have sought out Kent's expertise to ramp-up their security. 

In addition to a number of other safety features at Jesuit, a fence now surrounds the school, and students and staff have scanner cards to enter. 

La Salle Prep in Milwaukie recently took a variety of steps to beef up its safety. It hired an armed campus safety officer and constructed a new entrance, which has a vestibule that routes visitors through the main office before entering the school. It also has security cameras on all primary entry points.

Empowering students

The high schools regularly hold safety drills to prepare for active shooters, as well as fires and earthquakes.

The archdiocesan schools — Central Catholic, Marist and Regis St. Mary in Stayton — participate in ALICE trainings, a national active-shooter preparedness program. In years past, other programs told students and staff to lock the doors and hide. ALICE takes a different approach and encourages students to consider the possibility of running or fighting back. “It’s a more active response depending on the scenario,” said Homberg.

Schools that don’t use ALICE offer similar trainings.

“The goal is to empower students with increased agency, to help them be decision-makers in a crisis,” said Matt Winningham, executive director and chief financial officer at La Salle Prep in Milwaukie.

Lockdown drills themselves can be traumatic for students, but administrators try to mitigate the stress.

Nicholson said there’s a lot of communication with teens beforehand, and they can opt out if needed. Marist offers a “care room” for those having a difficult time during the drill.

Administrators view the drills as an unfortunate necessity.

“I never thought working as an administrator at a school would include teaching students and staff what to do in a catastrophic event,” said Nicholson.

‘No shortcuts’

In 80% of cases, school shooters communicated they were in crisis, whether through behavior changes, an expression of suicidal thoughts or plans, or specific threats, according to a new study by the news outlet Education Week.

At Jesuit and the other nine Catholic high schools in western Oregon, all signs are taken seriously. Students are told: If you see something — even if it appears to be a joke on social media — “say something,” Kent said.

Marist recently partnered with PeaceHealth, a Catholic health care provider in Eugene. PeaceHealth therapists will work with students, educate staff and offer suggestions for how teens can navigate common stressors.

Last year, St. Mary’s convened a student safety task force to consider students’ physical welfare but also how best to support their social, spiritual, intellectual and emotional safety.

“The No. 1 preventative measure we can take to prevent a tragedy is to genuinely know each individual student,” said Winningham. It’s an approach, he said, that aligns with the Catholic culture at the schools. “There are no shortcuts; we must live our mission of building authentic relationships with students every day.”

Collaboration critical

Collaboration with local law enforcement is a vital component of school safety at the Catholic high schools. La Salle has a partnership with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department, and Central Catholic has connections with the Portland police and the city’s fire department, which have maps of the school and access cards.

“Those are the people who are going to be the first ones at the door in the case of an emergency,” said Homberg.

Collaboration also occurs among the schools. The counselors participate in a consortium several times a year, and a program was launched to support school communities in the wake of a crisis. Groups of trained counselors called Flight Teams are available to deploy to a school that has experienced a trauma.

High school principals meet regularly, both formally and informally, to discuss a range of issues, including safety.

“I think the Catholic community can be extremely proud of how our schools work together to benefit all students, especially when it comes to student safety and well-being,” said Winningham.

While Catholic schools have been spared from a mass shooting so far, “they are no less susceptible,” noted Kent.

Bad press about Catholics and the clergy sex abuse crisis could make a Catholic school a target for some, she said. “It’s sad that we have to think about this. But studies from the FBI show that there’s not one specific type of school where this happens.”