Washington High School observed a moment of silence Monday morning in remembrance of the 20 boys and girls and six others killed Friday at their elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
The killing is the second deadliest school shooting in the United States, behind only the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said her administration and entire staff are deeply saddened by the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“Our hearts go out to those families,” VanLeer told The Missourian. “We love our kids and we care about their safety.”
The superintendent said it is only natural for situations like this to raise questions and concerns.
“Our safety committee, along with local law enforcement officials, will meet this week to review our emergency plans and to ensure safety in all of our schools,” she said. “This tragedy has caused schools across the country to examine their plans and we are no different.”
The Washington School District is the largest school system in Franklin County with over 4,000 students in preschool through high school, and more than 650 staff members.
The district does have two school resource officers, who are Washington police officers. They work primarily at the high school and middle school. They also serve as D.A.R.E. instructors for the elementary schools.
Lockdown drills are practiced about twice a year, VanLeer said.
Parents and visitors to the district’s elementary schools must be buzzed into the buildings, she said, while guests at the high school and middle school are required to sign in at the front desk.
“But when dealing with a forced entry, like what happened at Newtown, we must rely on our training and do the best and most brave job possible,” she said.
VanLeer said the “core issues” behind what happened in Connecticut go far beyond schools.
“Local, state and national governments truly need to reflect and make resources available in the area of mental health services, crime control and drug awareness and prevention, for the good of public safety,” she said.
VanLeer said counselors, teachers and staff are available to help students talk about their feelings.
Tips for adults on how to talk with children about the Connecticut school shooting can be found on the district’s website. The tips are from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
Dr. Frank Wood, Washington High School principal, said staff members have been open with students, answering their questions and providing support.
“Our biggest issue thus far for students and staff is the ‘why?’ ” he said.
“As far as safety, we will continue to have staff visible and encourage our students to report any activity that may be of concern or unsafe,” he added. “We did a schoolwide challenge a week ago concerning safety, giving and support of each other. Our community and school will continue to value the safety and education of all our kids.”
Keeping Things Normal
At St. Francis Borgia Grade School, Principal Keith Branson said he personally said a prayer Monday morning for the students and families of Sandy Hook Elementary, but chose not to make a formal announcement about the tragedy to the entire school.
“My goal is to keep things as normal for the students and staff as possible,” he said. “If any student asks questions about it, we will do our best to answer them. Plus if it is really bothering the students, counseling is available at school.”
Branson said school officials are constantly reviewing safety measures regardless of what is happening in the country.
“I am sure that all of our staff will be a little more cautious and on guard around the campus because of this tragedy,” he said.
Borgia Grade School is a locked down campus, Branson noted, and all volunteers who come in the building must sign in at the office.
“Plus we have an actual security camera and door entrance system at the two doors that students and parents should be entering to and from,” he said. “We tell the students that they should never let someone in at any door.”
The Catholic grade school also has an emergency booklet that is reviewed by the staff every summer in-service and kept in each classroom.
“We have a code word that is used over the PA system if we have a critical or emergency situation in the building,” Branson said.
Across town at Our Lady of Lourdes School, school officials also spent time Monday morning reviewing security.
“We have identified a few areas where we will be making some modifications to further strengthen our security procedures,” said Principal Rick Danzeisen. “Our Lady of Lourdes School does have a crisis manual, and the teachers are aware of what to do if certain situations should occur.”
The St. Louis Archdiocese has sent Catholic schools information for parents on how to help children deal with tragedy. That information was sent home with students Monday.
“They also sent information for faculty and staff and that was given to them,” Danzeisen said.
Nick Hopfensperger, principal of Immanuel Lutheran School, said as the events unfolded on Friday, the school sent an email home to all parents asking for their help in letting their own children know about the tragedy.
“Parents were encouraged to use their own judgement and to consider the age of their child(ren) in regards to sharing this information with them,” Hopfensperger said.
Immanuel Lutheran is currently reviewing the safety measures it has in place, he said, but not only because of the recent events.
“We have practiced a lockdown drill once or twice in the past, but we will be reviewing our procedures, making changes if needed, and practicing them again in the near future,” he said.
Doors leading into the school are locked from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., he added.
Pray for Victims
Like the other schools, St. Francis Borgia Regional High School spent some time Monday morning talking about its current safety procedures, both with staff and students.
“We also plan to talk to the police again and make sure our response and lockdown plans are what they should be,” said Dr. Brad Heger, principal of the co-ed Catholic high school.
Borgia students and staff also took time out to pray for those impacted by the Connecticut shooting at the end of the day Friday and again Monday morning. Counselors and teachers have been available if students want to talk about the tragedy, Heger said.
The principal said with so many possible scenarios in regard to an intruder or intruders in and outside a building that it’s difficult to know how to react.
“I think letting everyone know what’s going on is important in such an event,” he said. At Sandy Hook, someone was able to turn on the intercom system which authorities said probably saved lives because teachers knew to lock their doors and move students into closets or storage rooms where possible.
Heger said Borgia High will hold an additional safety training exercise in January. The school typically holds two a year.
“There were so many heroes in Connecticut and the staff did all they could,” he said.
Heger said he was particularly moved when he read how one teacher refused to open the door to police without first requiring them to slide their badges and identification under the door to make sure it wasn’t a trick by the intruder.
“That is something we have training on here,” he said.
Student Safety ‘Utmost Priority’
At St. Gertrude School, a letter went home to parents assuring them that the safety of students is the “utmost priority” and measures and protocols are in place to address emergency situations.
“I have reviewed the intruder protocol and lockdown protocol with the staff and will be discussing, reviewing and practicing these emergency procedures at our Jan. 9 faculty meeting,” said Principal Mike Newbanks. “On Jan. 10-11, we will drill these emergency procedures, including severe weather procedures with the students.”
All classrooms have phone access, Newbanks noted, and all teachers have walkie-talkies.
St. Gertrude also plans to work with local law enforcement to review and practice its emergency procedures.