St. Ursula Academy: Keeping Students Safe at School and Online

Written by Christy Heitger-Ewing
| Photography provided by Saint Ursula Academy
Written by Christy Heitger-Ewing | Photography provided by Saint Ursula Academy

For school leaders, the responsibility for safety and security is enormous. For families, it’s top of mind these days. This is precisely why Saint Ursula Academy (SUA) is leading the way in implementing safety protocols within facilities and educating students and staff about digital online safety.

At SUA, they believe that the four most significant pillars of school safety are:

  1. Clearly defined, research-based policies and procedures.

  2. Ongoing assessments to ensure physical and environmental safety practices.

  3. Highly effective communication using the most reliable technology, including rapid voice and electronic communications.

  4. A positive school environment that values diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), promotes social and emotional learning and provides suicide prevention resources.

SUA’s emergency safety plans have evolved in recent years because of growing partnerships with the local branch of Homeland Security, the Cincinnati Police Department, Cincinnati SWAT, the Cincinnati Fire Department, Cincinnati Public Schools’ school resource officer, and the Hamilton County Education Service Center (HCESC) safety specialist.

“Together, we review existing emergency response action plans, conduct site-based vulnerability assessments, and plan essential safety drills and communications,” explains Dr. Mari Thomas, Principal, who coordinates SUA’s safety and security protocols. According to Thomas, although partnerships, plans, assessments, drills and communications cannot completely prevent emergency situations, they can enhance response time greatly when necessary.

In January 2023, SUA and the Hamilton County Regional Fusion Center forged a relationship that will help grow important safety and security resources.

Research regarding school shootings and violence indicates that warning signs are typically present but ignored.

“If you create a culture that promotes individuals’ well-being and wholeness, the likelihood of school personnel being aware of potential safety issues greatly increases,” Thomas notes.

The school also focuses on digital online safety.

“We’re living in a society where everyone wants to one-up one another or showcase some power, and they do it behind the screen of technology. It breaks down our culture,” Thomas says.

The impact of this toxic digital environment on young people, in particular, is palpable, which is why the topic is covered multiple times over the course of a student’s four years at SUA. For example, the school recently invited a Cincinnati Police Department officer to talk to the student body about social media and cyberbullying.

In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the safety and security measures implemented in school buildings, particularly regarding the visitor screening process. In the past, signing in was the only requirement, but now, SUA conducts driver’s license checks to ensure that individuals entering the premises do not have a record of misconduct.

“It’s a sad state of affairs, but if we can’t tighten the reception area, we make ourselves vulnerable,” says Thomas. “It’s a fine line because you want people to feel welcome, yet you need to protect those in the building.”

Another shift is that school employees used to be trained in a model called ALICE in response to an active shooter. The ALICE model focused on hunkering down and staying safe. Now, SUA abides by a model called “Run, Hide, Fight” because it serves to be more of a useful life skill. This way, whether someone is in a safety situation at school or out in public, they can implement this action plan in the event of an active shooter.

According to Thomas, learning these transferable skills makes it unnecessary to rely on others for safety. “Instead, we receive an education on how to handle situations when XYZ happens,” she says. “It empowers us because we don’t need to be led. It’s a scary shift, but I think it’s an important one.”

SUA also provides self-defense classes and advises students on how to become more situationally aware (e.g., consider where you park, walk in pairs, don’t bury your nose in your phone, etc.) Plus, SUA provides students with access to their anonymous tip line (LiveSafe), Ohio’s 844-SaferOH (844-723-3764), and the national 988 suicide hotline.

“People may not realize all the things SUA is doing behind the scenes to ensure students are safe and cared for,” says Thomas, “Every single day, from the second they arrive on campus to the second they leave, we do all we can to keep students and staff safe and secure.”

Cincinnati SWAT conducts a drill on the Saint Ursula Academy campus while school is closed.
Cincinnati SWAT conducts a drill on the Saint Ursula Academy campus while school is closed.

Saint Ursula Academy is located at 1339 E. McMillan St., Cincinnati, OH 45206. For more information, visit or call 513-961-3410.

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