Bellows Falls Police officers assist New Hampshire law enforcement in securing the area of the Walpole School on Bemis Lane in Walpole, N.H., which was put
Bellows Falls Police officers assist New Hampshire law enforcement in securing the area of the Walpole School on Bemis Lane in Walpole, N.H., which was put on lockdown following a shooting incident in February. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Tuesday December 18, 2012

WALPOLE, N.H. -- Millions of parents sent their children back to school Monday, just as mourners in Connecticut were starting to lay to rest some of the victims of Friday's mass-shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The nation is grieving in the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., where a 20-year-old man gunned down 26 people -- including 20 children -- in a bloody rampage Friday before killing himself.

The massacre sent shockwaves throughout the United States and hit particularly close to home in Walpole, which is still reeling from an incident last February, in which a 14-year-old student shot himself while fellow students looked on during lunch at the local elementary school. The boy survived but was in serious condition and was flown by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

Cheshire County Attorney Peter Heed told The Associated Press the day of the incident that Mack might have been upset about a "relationship issue" with a girl.

So the stories of anxiety and fear portrayed through the media were all too familiar to Fall Mountain Regional School District Superintendent Debra Livingston and Walpole Elementary School.

"It's heartbreaking," she told the Reformer on Monday, adding that she has some understanding of what the victims' families are going through. "My thoughts and prayers are with them."

Livingston said all staff members were briefed on how to handle students who might being having trouble dealing with the news from Connecticut. She said all teachers were given talking points in case they were not comfortable addressing students about certain topics. Though there are not designated grief counselors to visit each school, Livingston said there are seven counselors in the district and all are trained to help students cope during times this.

"Any time something like this happens, students and staff members can certainly feel a connection," she said.

Livingston said the administration continues to be visible to its student body and has met every child's needs, adding the first day of school since the tragedy went as well as it could have.

The superintendent said the school district has always had a Department of Education safety management plan, which was reviewed on Monday. She added that all 11 schools in the district were involved in some sort of a mock emergency drill.

She said in the wake of Friday's killings she has heard from some concerned parents and assured them the district consists of caring and safety-oriented professionals.

Walpole Elementary Principal Samuel Jacobs referred all questions back to the school district's central office.

Just across the river in Bellows Falls, Vt., Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Chris Kibbe said students with emotional crises will be taken care of on a case-by-case basis. He said information is being sent home to parents to inform them of the best ways to comfort their young children during this difficult time.

Kibbe said one of the most important things parents and caretakers should do is make sure the students are not subjected to the non-stop media coverage of the shooting which bombard them with horrible images and stories of the victims. He also said parents need to make sure they are adequately handling the situation themselves so they can be there for their children. He advised anyone having difficulty coming to grips with what they are learning about in the news to immediately contact a health care provider.

Kibbe said faculty members had a meeting to review the emergency management plan on Monday.

One of the WNESU's schools -- Bellows Falls Elementary -- is in the midst of some heavy construction work that has increased the safety of the students.

Kibbe said the administration has always been cautious about keeping the building secure during construction, which is being done by Trumbull-Nelson Construction Co. He said safety is dramatically better than it was last spring because now the whole entry to the school is much more secure.

He also said criminal checks have been conducted on every person working on the project.

Heidi Lucas-Moccia, in her second year as Bellows Falls Middle School principal, said though construction is not yet completed, all buzzers have been installed and anyone who wants to gain entry to the school must be "buzzed in."

She said the school has several emergency management plans, including lockdown, but no drills are scheduled for the near-future because it is important to keep life as normal as possible for students.

It is also critical, Lucas-Moccia said, to have extra support for youngsters when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs. She said a few students have needed to talk about their feelings with guidance counselors or teachers they feel close to.

"Some people here are upset and there are a lot of questions. And the big question is, ‘Why?' But I'm not sure we'll ever know why (it happened)," she said. "You can feel it in the air -- the concern for the victims and the families."

She said she is aware the event in Connecticut might trigger some traumatic experience from a student's past and the administration must be prepared to deal with it.

"I think the kids are doing well today," she said.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.