Local schools respond to Newtown school shooting

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Tue., Dec. 18, 2012
Flags flew at half-staff across the country to honor the victims of the Newtown school shooting. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Flags flew at half-staff across the country to honor the victims of the Newtown school shooting. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Pre-kindergarten students at Griswold Elementary School had been gearing up for days for their annual gingerbread hunt, scheduled for Monday, Dec. 17. “The teachers asked me, ‘Should we cancel?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” said GES Principal Sue Rourke. “We have to keep things normal for the kids.”

And so life went on at schools across the region, as staff, parents and kids tried to cope with the news of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, which left 20 students and six adult staff members dead. Schools in the Griswold district held a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, but teachers and other staff at GES were working on keeping the tone buoyant.

“We’re not using words like ‘tragedy’ or ‘shooting,'” Rourke said. Instead, she said teachers were focusing on “strength, remembering and moving forward.” Faculty members met before the start of the school day and discussed how they could help their students and each other through their emotions in the wake of the incident.

In Mary Strout’s first-grade classroom, the day started with a video about how schools are communities. Students linked arms and sang together, then followed along with Strout in singing and signing an adapted version of “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

Strout skirted details of the incident after the moment of silence was over. “We’re not going to talk about it a lot today,” she said. Instead, she encouraged students who wanted to discuss their concerns to speak with guidance counselor Lauren Briggs. One student said he’d seen reports on the news; another said she didn’t know what was going on.

School social worker Kathy Iovino said that a wide range of response from young students is typical. “Kids at this level come in with varying degrees of understanding,” she said. “We project a lot more onto this as parents than children do.” She cited one child who told his mother, “It’s okay, mom. [The shooter] is dead now.”

Iovino said that teachers were asked to be especially attentive to students who had experienced trauma before, outside of school, since news of the tragedy could rekindle feelings of sorrow and loss. “For today, it’s all about being able to respond to them, whoever might need us” – including both students and staff, she said. Teachers were being urged to support each other as they tried to come to terms with the incident. “I think we’re all a little on edge,” she said.

Strout reminded her students of a code red drill conducted in the school the previous week. “I felt really good because we were in control. We were smart and we knew what to do. I feel a lot safer,” she said. One of her students mentioned the police officer stationed on campus that morning. “You know the police officer outside? I feel safe with him,” he said.

Griswold Superintendent Paul Smith said that the Newtown tragedy will force all school districts to reevaluate their security systems. He cited enhanced security features in the new elementary school, where classroom doors can be locked from the inside, and said that retrofitting the middle and high schools with such locks will be a top priority.

“Our goal is to lock down our classrooms in under three seconds,” he said. “Our schools have put so much effort into lockdown practice.” Knowing that “code red” can still mean that someone dangerous is already in the building, students have practiced getting out of sight and “staying invisible” until the danger passes, he said.

Still, he said, it remains to be seen whether or how security practices and measures will be beefed up in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. “This is Anytown, USA,” he said of Newtown. “It’s a sad state when our schools, which we want to be open and welcoming, are vulnerable to something like this. Here in Griswold we have a beautiful campus, and we want to maintain that feeling of a community center.” No one wants schools to feel like a prison because of security measures, he said.

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