School Climate & Safety

New Orleans Shooting Reveals Safety Gaps

By Darcia Harris Bowman — April 23, 2003 4 min read
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New Orleans schools Superintendent Anthony S. Amato ordered officials to begin a districtwide search for security lapses last week after a group of heavily armed teenagers opened fire in a high school gymnasium.

An injured female student is removed from John McDonogh High School in New Orleans after a shooting last week in the gymnasium. One male student was killed.
An injured female student is removed from John McDonogh High School in New Orleans after a shooting last week in the gymnasium. One male student was killed.
—Photograph by Bill Haber/AP

At least 200 students were in the gym of the 1,100- student John McDonogh High School shortly after 10:30 a.m. on April 14, local police said, when four young men armed with an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle and two handguns unleashed a hail of bullets at 15-year-old Jonathan A. Williams, who was sitting on the bleachers surrounded by other students. The gunfire killed the youth, who was allegedly targeted in retaliation for another local murder. Three female students were injured.

The amount of firepower the teenagers toted into the gym—and the subsequent revelation that the victim was armed with a concealed pistol at the time of the shooting—drew national attention and highlighted the vulnerability of a school system that had taken steps to prevent such violence.

The main McDonogh building is guarded by metal detectors, four security officers, and one full-time New Orleans police officer. School officials said the gym, however, is in a separate building that does not have metal detectors.

Mr. Amato said in an interview late last week that he had told the whole city that the day of the shooting was the “worst day” of his professional life. “It’s one of those nightmares,” he said.

The superintendent promised school board members at their Monday-night meeting last week that he would immediately conduct safety audits of all high schools, set up a telephone hotline for students to call in tips about impending violence, and form student committees to foster open discussion about problems in the schools.

The high school safety audits were completed last week, and the district was set to review security measures at middle schools this week, Mr. Amato said.

A Rough Start

The shooting made for a rough start for Mr. Amato, who was barely two months into the top job at the 77,000- student Louisiana district. (“Amato to Run New Orleans Schools,” Feb. 12, 2003.)

Formerly the schools chief in Hartford, Conn., the administrator has earned a national reputation for turning around troubled school systems. His new post has him presiding over a district in which 70 percent of the mostly African- American student population lives in poverty, 21 schools are identified by the state as failing, and the superintendency has turned over several times in the past decade.

The teenager gunned down at McDonogh High was the seventh victim of fatal school violence in the United States this academic year, according to Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting company in Cleveland. Most of those killings, as well as a number of recent violent crimes in and around schools that didn’t result in deaths, occurred in large urban districts such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas.

Typical of urban school violence, the New Orleans shooting was believed to be the culmination of escalating conflicts in the surrounding community that finally spilled into the midcity campus, located two miles from New Orleans’ French Quarter. The alleged gunmen, ranging in age from 17 to 19, weren’t students at the high school, police said.

Mr. Amato said one of the biggest problems the schools face is that students don’t warn them of impending violence.

When he visited the school in the wake of the incident, he said, students told him they knew the attack was going to happen; they just weren’t sure whether it would be on a Monday or a Tuesday.

“From my perspective, many people must have known this was going to happen,” said Mr. Amato.

Security Lapses?

In the days following the shooting, police were investigating tips that the suspects entered the campus through a gaping hole in a plank fence that separates school property from nearby housing projects. The gunmen apparently slipped into the building through an unguarded rear entrance off an alley behind the gymnasium, according to a police report.

Students and teachers at the school quoted in an article in The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans claimed that teenagers frequently strolled through beeping metal detectors at McDonogh High without being searched by security guards, and that strangers regularly roamed the hallways.

Mr. Trump said he encounters the same lapses in districts around the country in his work as a security consultant. Many educators are putting too much faith in electronic gadgets and spending too little time on training and planning, he said.

“Parents and school officials should not have unrealistic expectations of guaranteed school safety simply because schools have security personnel and equipment,” Mr. Trump said. “Prepared schools will also train all staff, evaluate and refine their overall security measures on an ongoing basis, and test and exercise crisis plans before there’s an actual crisis.”

In hindsight, Mr. Amato suggested that the biggest lapse, in this case, “was a lack of intelligence gathering we could have gotten from the community.”

Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller contributed to this report.

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