Local educators respond to Conn. killings

Tuesday December 18, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Across Windham County Monday, teachers, administrators and counselors got together before the school day to talk about how they were going to help their students, and each other, through what was likely going to be a difficult and challenging day.

On Friday a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct., killing 20 children and six staff members.

The shootings took place in the morning, and information was released throughout the day, so Monday was the first chance for educators, administrators and counselors to talk with their students and try to begin helping them cope with the tragedy.

Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said state officials and local educators and administrators swapped e-mail messages and documents all weekend to prepare for Monday morning.

And schools across Windham County held early morning meetings to make everyone was ready to support the students.

"We do this all the time anyway, but we wanted to remind everyone at school to be vigilant. This would be a good time to check in with the kids," said Stahley. "We want every student to feel like they have at least one adult they can talk with, whether it is a teacher, a principal or a custodian at the school. We want students to feel like they are supported and that they are safe."

According to Stahley, each school develops its own security policies and they range from locked front doors where visitors have to be buzzed in to schools with open doors

He says schools have to walk a fine line between guarding the entrance and welcoming visitors.

And ultimately, such as was the case at the school in Connecticut that had a robust security policy, an armed gunman on a mission will be able to get by locked doors and school staff anyway.

"We don't want this to be a police state, but it is important that people stay vigilant," Stahley says. "If kids or parents have concerns it is important that they know they can raise issues and reach out. We want to create a climate where people feel safe. We have to support each other."

Districts in the southeast part of the state do have to go through additional emergency drills and have updated crisis plans, due to their proximity to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, and Stahley said similar drills did appear to save some lives in Connecticut when the school went into lockdown.

"People get tired of the drills but we try to let the students know that they do save lives," Stahley said. "We have plans in place and they are very important."

Health Care and Rehabilitation Services, or HCRS, has contracts with about 35 schools in Windham and Windsor counties and the organization provides about 25 mental health counselors who work with students in southeastern Vermont.

Executive Director Judith Hayward also said information was provided to the counselors throughout the weekend and the counselors showed up for work Monday understanding that it was likely not going to be an ordinary day at school.

"For some kids this is their worst horror," she said. "They are afraid about their safety and when something like this happens they don't want to be in school. We have to find a way to make sure they know they are safe."

Hayward said that in the days after an event like the Newtown shootings there is a tendency to look for answers and already there have been reports about the shooter's mental health history.

But she says whether or not Adam Lanza, the alleged killer, had Asberger's Syndrome or some other personality disorder, it was important not to draw conclusions, or make assumptions abut other children who suffer from mental illness.

"People want to find answers and they tend to focus on his diagnosis," Hayward said. "That would be a big mistake."

Hayward said the Vermont Department of Mental Health sent out packages of materials this weekend to help counselors talk with their students in the coming days.

Hayward also warned against using the Newtown shooting to advocate for additional mental health counseling.

Hayward said that while more funding, and counseling time, are always welcomed among mental health professionals, there is no indication that Lanza would have benefited from additional counseling

"More mental health services would not have prevented this. You can't blame it on that," said Hayward. "This was a random act that was carefully planned out and more mental health services would not have delved into that. The most important thing is to get rid of assault weapons."

HCRS Director of Children and Youth Family Programs, Will Shakespeare, said that as horrific as the Newtown killings were, the schools in many ways prepare for crisis every day.

His clinicians work with children who are coming from broken homes plagued with drug addiction, violence and abuse, and the only way to help these children make it through the school day is by creating a climate that is safe and supportive.

The Newtown murders are especially challenging for children because they happened at a school building, and for students with mental health or emotional issues, school is usually the one place they come that offers respite from their tough conditions at home.

"The counselors know which kids are at risk and might have a difficult reaction to the day's events," said Shakespeare. "They are well prepared for critical events like this and had plans in place."

Shakespeare said he heard about one principal who set a desk up at the entrance to the school and made sure to welcome every student in to the building Monday.

He said there seemed to be a high rate of absenteeism Monday, though it was hard to know if that was due to the snow and ice or to the shootings.

Principals around the region said they wanted to first and foremost let their students know that they were safe and that the schools were doing everything possible to make sure their security policies were adequate.

Green Street School Principal John Reed said school safety is one of the most important responsibilities that administrators and teachers have.

Some parents asked questions about the school's security policies and Reed said the school was going to go over the policies.

Some students had not heard the news and he said generally staff tried to downplay the news and not make a big deal about it.

The school took a moment of silence to recognize the people of Newtown, Reed said, and the teachers took the time to address the issue when it was brought up.

"The mood was pretty quiet and somber all day," said Reed. "We're all devastated by the news that came out of this and we're pulling together as a staff and focusing on in creasing our efforts to make the school as safe as possible."

At Brattleboro Union High School, Principal Steve Perrin gathered his staff before the students arrived to talk about how teachers should handle the inevitable questions and discussions that would arise among the teenage student body.

They also talked about the important role the teenagers play in making sure the front door remains locked and that the security protocols are followed.

Perrin said high school students have more developed and complicated opinions about issues like school safety, gun control and mental illness and the staff talked about the most appropriate ways of making sure the students knew that their concerns were being heard.

Still Perrin said Monday was very quiet, above any other effects the killings might have had on staff and students.

"A lot of students seem shook up and they walked up and said, ‘Can you believe this happened?'" said Perrin. "People are staying close to each other. There are more discussions that have to take place, but I don't think we're there yet."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com.


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