School Climate & Safety

Conn. School Shootings Send Ripple Effects to Districts Nationwide

December 17, 2012 6 min read
Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following the shooting on Dec. 14.

Three days after the deadliest K-12 school shooting in American history, state and district education leaders across the country are reviewing security measures, increasing police presence, and grappling with how to answer students’ questions about the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the Newtown, Conn., district.

In Connecticut, Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor said his agency sent letters to superintendents statewide Sunday evening with a list of written prompts for classroom teachers to help them address the shooting in Newtown with their students, the Associated Press reported.

“In many instances, teachers will want to discuss the events because they are so recent and so significant, but they won’t necessarily know how to go about it,” Mr. Pryor said.

Already, Connecticut state police Lt. J. Paul Vance said that local police had responded Monday to reports of a suspicious person, triggering a lockdown of some schools in communities neighboring Newtown.

“We’re obviously all on edge,” Lt. Vance said. “Anything that even remotely appears to be a breach of security will be taken very seriously. Believe me the blanket of security is very strict.”

See Also

Visit Education Week‘s collection page for complete coverage of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

In Newtown, makeshift memorials commemorating the lives of the 26 students and staff members at the school dotted the town where President Barack Obama on Sunday night reaffirmed an earlier message about the need for making changes to prevent a recurrence of such violence.

“Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?” he said to several hundred residents gathered in Newtown High School’s auditorium. “Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know they are loved and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

Ryan Bartolotta, 17, right, and Ray Massi, 18, light candles that were put out by rain at a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook Village of Newtown, Conn., on Monday as the town continues to mourn victims killed in Friday's shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no,” he continued. “We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, the fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.”

Officials in Newtown were still trying to decide when to open schools for all students. Some media reports indicated classes would resume Tuesday for district students other than those who attend Sandy Hook. The nearby Monroe district has already worked out a plan for those students to use a school building that the district no longer uses. But Newtown administrators hadn’t chosen a date for that shift to begin, and the decision is complicated by the fact that students’ winter break is set to start Friday.

Newtown police Lt. George Sinko said it would be important to keep the students together, wherever the 5,500-student Newtown district finds a place for them.

When asked whether Newtown students would ever be able to attend classes in the part of the Sandy Hook building where students were slain, Lt. Sinko said: “At this time, it’s too early to say. I would find it very difficult for them to do that.”

Role of Security

The massacre in Newtown has renewed discussions nationwide about school security procedures.

A U.S. flag flies at half-staff over the skyline of Newtown, Conn., in honor of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

The security system at Sandy Hook—a buzzer at the front door accompanied by a camera that required visitors to be approved to enter the 600-student K-4 school—wouldn’t have kept shooter Adam Lanza from entering the school, said Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based company that advises districts.

Police said he shot his way into the school with a powerful rifle, the same weapon he used to kill his victims—20 pupils and six staff members—at Sandy Hook before using a handgun to kill himself.

The security system is particularly common at elementary schools, where intruders, spillover from parental disputes, and other external threats are often more of a concern than fighting and other behavior issues caused by students. The devices have their flaws, such as one visitor piggybacking on another without the school’s knowledge, but they are seen as a deterrent nevertheless.

And the system may have bought the school precious seconds that reduced the carnage, Mr. Trump said, because the gunman wasn’t able to walk right into the school.

“Every single second counts,” he said.

Meanwhile, Connecticut state police Lt. J. Paul Vance said Monday that local police responded to reports of a suspicious person, triggering a lockdown of some schools in neighboring communities.

“We’re obviously all on edge,” Lt. Vance said. “Anything that even remotely appears to be a breach of security will be taken very seriously. Believe me the blanket of security is very strict.”

Tightening Procedures

Superintendents and principals nationwide offered parents assurances of safety and guided staff members about what to say to children, and many administrators pledged to have crisis counselors available should students need to talk. In email, website, and phone messages to parents, school leaders said they would also be prepared to meet the emotional needs of students, many of whom have been steeped in the nonstop news coverage of the killings over the weekend.

Superintendent Scott Robison of the 6,000-student Zionsville school district in Indiana wrote to parents thanking them for being the district’s partners in school safety and security.

Robert and Alissa Parker leave the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire House in tears on Friday after learning that their daughter, Emilie, 6, was among the victims of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“Thank you for understanding that school secretaries and others ask you for ID, to sign in, or question you if they do not know the nature of your business in one of our schools. But our schools are not fortresses with armed guards and metal detectors, though some will now call for both of these,” he wrote in an email message.

“We will continue to explore security strategies in collaboration with members of law enforcement and school security experts,” he said. “We will continue to study, practice, and refine our security protocols. We will continue to protect and serve all of our community’s children as though each one is our very own.”

For families in the 1,700-student North Smithfield district in Rhode Island, Superintendent Stephen Lindberg posted a message on the district website that noted the district would re-emphasize safety procedures with staff members, but that “we will not be implementing a practice drill this week, so as not to increase any anxiety in our children.”

And in the 1,100-student K-8 Capitol Hill Cluster School in Washington, Principal Dawn Clemens said the District of Columbia school system had reviewed security procedures over the weekend. She didn’t provide details in an email message to the school community, but she said, “You will be experiencing some changes in our protocols across the three campuses, and I ask for your cooperation and patience while we consider changes to some of our procedures.”

In suburban Miami-Dade County, Fla., parent Jessica Kornfeld drove her two young children to their elementary school over the weekend to show them it was safe, she told the Associated Press, after also explaining to them what happened in Connecticut.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and several political leaders, meanwhile, suggested arming school employees, while Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, discussed the idea of a violence commission to look at policies and practices related to school safety more closely.

Back in Newtown, school district leaders and educators continued the grim work of dealing with the aftermath and thinking about how they will move forward. Many spoke out about how that time will come.

Sandy Hook math and science specialist Kris Feda, speaking on “The Today Show” on Sunday, said she was sure of it.

“We are going to pick up the pieces somehow,” Ms. Feda said. “We’re going to stick together and in time we’ll heal.”

Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh and Research & Development Associate Amy Wickner contributed to this report.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week

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