Department of Education awards $220,000 to Placerville Union schools in tragedy aftermath

Nearly three years after Principal Sam LaCara was gunned down by the school janitor in his office at Louisiana Schnell School, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday it is giving Placerville Union School District close to a quarter-million dollars to “restore a sense of safety and security.”

The $220,000 grant will fund continued counseling for students, parents and staff and pay for a police officer to spend 20 hours a week among the district’s three schools, Superintendent Eric Bonniksen said.

Bonniksen said the death of LaCara in February 2011 left the school community feeling vulnerable. “No matter where something like this ends up happening it takes a little bit away from that feeling of safety,” he said. “We want people to feel like they are safe on our campuses.”

The death of the beloved principal at the hands of his friend and golfing partner, John Luebbers, shook the small community of about 10,000 people. Luebbers apparently shot LaCara over a dispute about hiring a night janitor. LaCara, 50, died at Marshall Hospital in Placerville about an hour after the shooting. Luebbers was sentenced in June 2012 to 50 years to life.

Since the shooting, the school district has designed new school safety plans and installed surveillance cameras and panic buttons at Schnell School as well as at its other campuses – Sierra Elementary School and Markham Middle School.

The district applied for the extended services grant from the federal Emergency Response to Violence Program, which provides money to school districts, colleges and universities that need counseling and other services after a violent event on campus. Immediate grants provide short-term support soon after a traumatic event, while one-time extended services grants provide up to $250,000 for 18 months.

The Department of Education gave an initial award of $45,000 to the Placerville district in June of 2011 – four months after the principal was killed – for immediate counseling services. Bonniksen said the need for counseling has increased “tenfold if not more” since before the shooting and will help the kids “to be able to cope and move forward. It’s been an ongoing process.”

He said the campus community at Schnell School is recovering. “The students are very successful and are happy to be at school, and the staff is fantastic and things are moving forward in a positive manner,” he said.

The Office of Safe and Healthy Students has awarded more than $33.7 million since the Emergency Response to Violence Program began in 2001, said Jo Ann Webb, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman. Shootings, stabbings, suicides, hate crimes and homicides are listed as examples of violent episodes that could make a school district eligible for the money.

“We want to do whatever we can to support ongoing recovery efforts,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a prepared statement. “These grants will help ensure that the school district has the resources necessary to meet the continued needs of its students, school staff and the community that were impacted by this terrible tragedy.”