Safety in our schools

Saturday January 26, 2013

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary happened six weeks and one day ago. Parents, schools, and local and state officials have been working hard to make sure this community we all love remains safe for our youngest Vermonters.

At 10 in the morning after the shooting, we received a pre-recorded call from Nina’s school principal. He assured families that our children’s safety was a top priority and if we had any concerns, we were encouraged to discuss them. We were invited to a public forum which would be held at the school on the following Monday.

Throughout the whole weekend, like millions of parents across the country, we tried to decide what to say to Nina, if anything at all. The only reason I felt inclined to was in preparation for her hearing something at school. If she was going to hear anything, we wanted it to be from us. We gave her a version of the story with no details. She basically just absorbed the information without much reaction, exactly what we expected. A second call from the principal came just at the right time -- after bedtime on Sunday when so many parents were feeling anxious about what our children would hear and how it would feel to drop them off the next day.

He provided an overview of what would happen in the morning: an (age-appropriate) morning meeting to talk about the event, to validate any feelings the children were having and to decide on a positive action to take in recognition of both the children who lost their lives and those who survived. As a parent, I appreciated this prompt, thorough and sincere outreach from the school.

I rested easy that night, having faith that the school staff would be caring and thoughtful in guiding how the next day would unfold, Nina’s teacher in particular. We completely trusted her to handle any conversation that came up in the best way possible. I also knew that in a terrible situation like the one at Sandy Hook, she would be as heroic as those we’ve all read about.

For many of the children, the first day back at school was uneventful, especially the younger ones. I was obviously curious if and how it came up. Nina’s only comment on the topic was that she had shared that she "already knew all about it." And that was that.

I attended the public forum that night. The principal first talked about what that day was like for the students. His sense was that many of them knew of the incident (even citing that 15 out of 21 kindergarteners in one class had heard some version of the story). He talked about the teachers’ goal of validating feelings the children had and then moving from sadness to positivity with action, for example writing letters or making cranes.

Parents then talked about their families’ experiences, mostly wondering what to say to their children. The sentiment of the group was to let the children lead and lead at their own pace and in their own way.

The conversation then turned to safety. The principal talked about the systems that were already in place. I went mostly to hear if and when they practiced their lock-down drills and learned that one was scheduled for January. The police officer then gave parents some insight into how situations like these are handled. The most interesting part to me was learning how the changing times have changed their procedures. Before the shooting at Columbine High in 1999, the order of priority was: 1) assist those in need 2) catch the bad guy and 3) protect the crime scene. After Columbine, there’s been widespread shift to making ‘catch the bad guy’ number one. This is chilling to think about, but also reassuring to learn how they are responding to the realities of today.

A few weeks later, before returning to school from our winter break, we received another message stating that new policies would be put into place: parents would be expected to wait in the lobby when picking up their children and all visitors must sign-in and wear a visitors badge. We were also informed of a district wide meeting on school safety, planned for Jan. 23. I marked my calendar.

Soon after, a letter came home informing parents there would be planned lockdown drill in mid-January, along with unannounced one later in the year. I brought it up to Nina who knew all about it from her trusted teacher. She said they had two hiding spots in their classroom and during the "test" the principal or vice principal would come to their classroom and try to open the door. If it wasn’t locked "they would talked to (her) teacher about it." I had to swallow back my tears as she nonchalantly told me about this. I’m thankful that this practice is put into place, yet heartbroken that it’s necessary.

So much of my attention had been focused on Nina because she’s in elementary school and that was the scene of the real crime. It wasn’t until nearly a month after the shooting that it dawned on me to inquire with the director of my 3-year-old’s child care program about their safety procedures. Thinking about this delay, I noticed how we can get lost in the perceived safety of our community. I had neglected to put that in the forefront of my mind because we feel so settled and situated. But as parents, we have to train ourselves. We can’t think anywhere is bullet proof anymore. I wasn’t surprised to get a thorough response from her, citing procedures in the parent handbook and describing conversations that have taken place since that fateful day.

I attended the meeting this past week, hosted by the local school board. About 50 of us were there, including parents, principals, and school faculty. There were also local and state police and emergency management team members there to discuss potential changes to our schools structures and procedures. The room seemed to be split, many in favor of locked doors, others viewing it as a mirage of safety that wouldn’t be the most sensible change to make.

I was comforted by many things after attending this meeting: that our school board is actively listening to us, that parents are partners in the education of our children and that even though we have different ideas of the best way to do it, we are all together in our effort to protect the children of our community.

Sarah DiNicola is the Communications & Events Coordinator at Windham Child Care Association, and the mother of two young children, Sylvia, age 3, and Nina, age 5, who both spend time in a local child care program. She can be reached at or 802-254-5332 ext. 310.


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