School Climate & Safety

Multiple Deaths, Children Among Them, in Conn. School Shooting

By Nirvi Shah — December 14, 2012 7 min read
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By Nirvi Shah

Nearly 30 people, including 20 children and six adults, were shot and killed at a Connecticut elementary school today, the state police said.

The shootings took place in two classrooms of the 600-student Sandy Hook Elementary School in the 5,500-student Newtown school district. News reports confirm the gunman’s mother was a teacher at the elementary school and she was among the dead Friday.

“Evil visited this community today and it’s too early to speak of recovery,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, during a press briefing Friday afternoon.

The school principal, Dawn Hochsprung, was also among the dead. She had recently tweeted this picture from a school evacuation drill. School psychologist Mary Sherlach was also killed.

Connecticut state police were not identifying the children as of Friday evening because of the painstaking process of identifying all of them and discerning the location of every child who attends Sandy Hook, state police Lt. J. Paul Vance said.

“It’s a difficult process to confirm the status of an entire elementary school,” Newtown Police Lt. George Sinko said.

The person believed to be the shooter is 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who killed himself, news media reported, and there have been unconfirmed reports of a second suspect. Media reports indicated the shooter may have connections to New Jersey. The suspect’s brother, 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, was being questioned in connection with the massacre.

One law enforcement official told the AP that the suspect drove to the scene in his mother’s car. Three guns were found—a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols—and a .223-caliber rifle. The rifle was recovered from the back of a car. The two pistols were recovered from inside the school. His mother, Nancy Lanza, who was at one point identified as a teacher at the school, was also killed Friday at a home in Newtown, reports said.

News reports indicated at least 100 shots were fired by the gunman, who was reportedly wearing camouflage and black combat gear.

State police said one other person at the school was injured.

Collectively, the deaths make the killings the deadliest K-12 school shooting in American history, even more than the killings in 1999 at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., where 13 people were killed in addition to the two shooters.

A CNN producer said that parents received an automated call Friday morning from Newtown Superintendent Janet Robinson about the shooting but it did not say which school was involved, prompting parents to stream to schools across the district.

Policy Changes?

“I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do,” said President Barack Obama during a brief, emotional speech to the nation Friday afternoon. “Among the fallen were also teachers—men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams. ... As a country we’ve been through this too many times. ... We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

The president of the Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy group in Washington, echoed the call to action.

“Once again we are faced with unspeakable horror, and once again we are reminded that there is no safe harbor for our children. How young do the victims have to be and how many children need to die before we stop the proliferation of guns in our nation? We can’t just talk about it and then do nothing until the next shooting when we will profess shock again,” the group’s president, Marian Wright Edelman, said in a statement.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also reflected on the mass killing.

“School shootings are always incomprehensible and horrific tragedies. But words fail to describe today’s heartbreaking and savage attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As the father of two children in elementary school, I can barely imagine the anguish and losses suffered today by the Newtown community,” he said in a statement. “Our thanks go out to every teacher, staff member, and first responder who cared for, comforted, and protected children from harm, often at risk to themselves. We will do everything in our power to assist and support the healing and recovery of Newtown.”

The immediate instinct among school officials and parents will likely be to demand “tangible, physical” upgrades to school safety, through the addition of metal detectors, security guards and the like, said Kenneth S. Trump, a widely cited consultant on school safety issues. That approach, on its own, is largely misguided, he said.

Many of the most critical school safety strategies are largely invisible to the public, Trump said. Those steps include cultivating a school environment that encourages students, teachers, and administrators to share information with each other about potential threats to the school from students or adults, or about domestic tensions involving staff that could spill over into the school, said Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland, Ohio-based company that advises districts.

“There’s a huge difference between the perception of a safer school and community and the reality of a safer school and community,” Trump said in an interview. One of the best ways to prevent school tragedies is to increase the flow of information in all directions among adults and students, he said: “It’s very hard to prevent something you don’t anything about.”

In a statement, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, demanded action.

“We’ll never be able to prevent every senseless act of violence, but our children, educators and school employees go to school believing it is a safe sanctuary. We’ve been through this too many times,” she said. “Everything we can do, we must do, including a renewed focus on gun control and preventing gun violence.”

Dealing with the Crisis

The challenges facing those officials, and the entire 26,000-resident Newtown community, are likely to be complicated by the fact that school employees who might otherwise provide comfort to students are likely to be coping with their own trauma stemming from the event, said Stephen Brock, a professor of school psychology at the California State University, Sacramento. For that reason, the more that community leaders outside the school district can contribute to the healing process, the better, said Mr. Brock, who was a school psychologist for about two decades, and now trains individuals to become school psychologists.

In the days ahead, it will also be critical that parents and other adults in the Connecticut community—and in school districts across the country—attempt to keep students from being exposed to the constant cycle of news coverage that rehashes the tragedy, he said.

“We need to carefully monitor and restrict what students see, [so that they are] not watching it over and over again,” Brock said. The tide of TV and other media coverage “increases the closeness” of students to the shootings, he added. “What we want is to minimize the trauma and minimize both the physical and emotional exposure to these events.”

Even in the wake of events like the Newtown shooting, it’s important for adults, school officials, and the media to carry that message that schools are safe—a notion backed up by the data, Brock argued. If the public’s confidence in schools’ safety erodes and is distorted, it can have broad, negative consequences for schools and society, he said.

Also read more here at the K-12 Parents & the Public blog, which has guidance for parents.

Violent crimes at schools had been on the decline for the last few years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but there has been at least one other K-12 school shooting this year.

Randy Sprick, the director of Safe and Civil Schools, a Eugene, Ore.-based organization that advises school officials on behavior, classroom management and other issues, said leaders of school systems around the country are certain to hear from parents shaken by the Newtown shootings, who want to know how their schools are protecting their children from threats. Those district leaders would be wise to spend the coming days and weeks reviewing their school safety plans and emergency procedures with parents, and addressing any other concerns they have. Doing so will reassure students and families in both tangible and intangible ways, he said.

The goal is to “remind them that the school is a place to be connected, and that schools have their best interests at heart,” Sprick said.

Keep watching this blog for additional news and updates on the shooting. And join Education Week‘s discussion about the shooting.

Here’s a look back at significant events in U.S. history involving school violence, security, and discipline: (Click below to scroll through the timeline.)

Education Week Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh and staff writers Alyson Klein and Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.

Photos, from top: Parents walk away from the Sandy Hook Elementary School with their children following a shooting at the school on Friday in Newtown, Conn. (Frank Becerra Jr./The Journal News/AP)

Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a shooting on Dec. 14 that left at least 27 people dead. (Shannon Hicks/Newtown Bee/AP)

President Barack Obama becomes emotional as he talks about the Connecticut elementary school shooting on Friday in the White House briefing room in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

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