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A normal school day, but ...

Local schools discuss counseling and security behind the scenes after Newtown shooting

December 18, 2012
By CHRIS MORRIS, PETER CROWLEY and JESSICA COLLIER - Staff , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Many local elementary school officials didn't want to assume their students knew about Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and didn't think it was the school's place to break the news to them on Monday, the first day of classes since 20-year-old Adam Lanza reportedly killed 20 young students, six teachers and staff, his mother and himself.

Josh Dann, principal of Saranac Lake's Petrova Elementary School, said faculty and staff mostly moved forward with their regular routine, while being alert for kids who might be worried. He had emailed teachers Sunday night, asking them to remind kids that they are safe at Petrova, if the subject came up.

"Because some of the kids don't know, we didn't want to be the ones to tell them at this point," Dann said. "Our job was to seek out the ones that did need help, which, so far, there weren't any."

Article Photos

A message from the Lake Placid community is surrounded by teddy bears left in honor of the victims of a school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
(Photo — Karen Angelopoulos)

"This sounds terribly callous, but we're trying to go business as usual but still be sensitive to the kids' needs," Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Randy Richards said. He said the district issued guidelines to teachers and staff about how to discuss the shooting with students. He said attendance was normal on Monday.

Mary Michelfelder, the Lake Placid Elementary School's counselor, said she supplied teachers with articles from education journals containing advice on how to talk to students following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

For elementary students, Michelfelder said too much exposure to news stories, especially television coverage, can be harmful. In a memo issued to educators, the Crisis Management Institute urges parents and teachers to turn off the television.

"The visuals are going to stay imprinted in their brain more than a kind and comforting discussion with a parent," Michelfelder said.

"This whole thing is so senseless," Richards said. "We can't begin to make any reason out of this horrible thing."


Talking about it with kids

Michelfelder also encouraged adults to take care of themselves.

"The best thing anyone can do to be helpful to kids is to be OK yourself," she said. "Make sure that you're in good shape when you're going to have that discussion with a child, so that if a kid asks questions, you've thought a little bit about what you're going to say. You want to clear up any myths.

"The biggest thing is the reassurance, as best you can, that if you're a teacher, that you'll take great care of the kids at school, and if you're a parent, you'll do everything in your power to make sure the kids are safe."

Michelfelder said most experts think parents and teachers should avoid saying things like, "This will never happen."

"Because they just learned it can happen," she said. "But you can say, 'I will do everything in my power to make sure you are safe, and you can count on that.' Something that is reassuring and yet still accurate."

Michelfelder said discussing the incident itself should be developmentally appropriate. Younger children, for example, don't need to know details.

"Be a good listener, and let the kids tell you what they're concerned about," Michelfelder said.

Michelfelder said LPES provided individual support for students on Monday. She added that there was a heightened adult presence at the school.


Didn't come up

Keene Central School Principal Dan Mayberry said the main goal at his school was to "try to keep everything as normal and regular as possible, and still be there to support our students.

"Anyone that needed to come speak to a counselor or myself, we were there to support," he said. "We're sending information home to families as well. Just some tips - ways to help your children get through this type of situation.

"I did not get wind of anything major going on today - anyone having a really hard time with it. But I think, over the next couple of days, we'll probably see something as it really sinks in for some kids."

Mayberry said his school is also looking at its security protocols.

"We're trying to balance what we do with what we conceivably can change, if we need to change anything," he said.

Things went similarly at St. Bernard's, a Catholic elementary school in Saranac Lake. Principal Ray Dora said the school's 50 or so students weren't heard talking about the shooting, even in parent chaperones' cars on a fourth- and fifth-grade field trip.

"I talked to the teachers before the school day, basically told them, if you get any questions, try to answer them honestly but try not to get into any class-wide discussions.

"For the most part, you wouldn't know anything went on," he said.

Personally, Dora said he was "devastated" by the news from Newtown Friday.

"It's one of things that's just hard to imagine, hard to figure what someone's thinking who does something like that," he said. "Some of these people who want revenge on the world, it seems they tend to take it out on the most defenseless."

He said he emphasized with teachers that this is a rare occurrence, "although we seem to be getting more of them. The past few years, we seem to have one each year."



Local schools are also reviewing safety and security protocols in the tragedy's wake.

Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Seth McGowan recorded a message for the parents of the school district and sent it out via the district's emergency calling system, which lets district officials call all the parents in the district at the same time. The message is also posted on the district's website.

"While the incident is considered to be an isolated event and poses no credible threat to any other school, it is a reminder of the growing list of schools besieged by violent acts," McGowan's message reads. "It reminds us of the vigilance we must have in protecting our most vulnerable population, and our most precious - our children."

He assured parents that the safety of children is his highest priority every day and noted that the district's safety plans have been tested with the help of local law enforcement and emergency services officials. But he said the Connecticut shootings have prompted a review of the district's current safety plan.

"You may begin to see the results of this review almost immediately, and it may be considered an inconvenience to some," McGowan said. "But I believe that the safety and well-being of our children is paramount to our routines as educators and parents."

McGowan noted that while he has family members in the school district, he considers the lives and safety of each child in the district as if they are his own.

Ron LaScala, a Tupper Laker whose wife works for the district and who has two daughters who attend school there, said he was glad McGowan sent out the message.

"I was actually happy that he did it," LaScala said. "Talking to people around town, it was on people's minds. This type of thing can happen anyplace."

LaScala said he has full confidence in the employees of the district to do everything they can to protect the students, and to do a full review of school policies and procedures to make sure they are the best they can be.

Saranac Lake school board members plan to discuss school safety at their first meeting in January, according to board member Esther Arlan.

"I think the important thing we should all take away from this is we should think ahead and plan ahead," Arlan said. "In workshops I've attended, locking the doors gives you a false sense of security. Locking the door is not the solution to the problem. It has to be a combination of things."

Dora said the incident made him think about security, although he couldn't think of much to change. St. Bernard's already locks all the doors to both its buildings, except the main office door, during the school day. The door to the smaller building sometimes doesn't close properly, however, so he's reminding teachers to make sure it's pulled tight.


Local tributes

Some Tri-Lakers have reached out to the Sandy Hook community with flowers and notes of support. Lake Placid school district Clerk Karen Angelopoulos told the Enterprise that she and her daughter, Alexa, a sophomore at Elmira College, brought flowers and a handmade sign to a memorial near Sandy Hook school in Newtown. They were in the area for a Lake Placid boys hockey game in Brewster, N.Y.

"The flowers were left with the other flowers," Angelopoulos said. "There were so many. ... The cars were backed all the way up, so Alexa and I had to walk down. As soon as you get off the highway to go to the town, there is stuff everywhere, from balloons on the bridge, angels in the side of a hill, posts on doors of heartfelt sorrow, Christmas trees decorated."

Meanwhile, municipal officials in Saranac Lake memorialized the Newtown victims by hanging bows on the columns of the Harrietstown Town Hall: green and white, the Sandy Hook school colors, and purple, a traditional color of mourning.

"Last Friday, tragedy struck a town much like our own, and we all grieve for the 26 lives needlessly lost that day," Harrietstown Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua and Saranac Lake village Mayor Clyde Rabideau said in a joint statement. "On this Christmas, we all are from Newtown, and we need to celebrate for them; for the families of the mothers, daughters and wives who died while trying to protect 'their kids' and for those 20 young souls taken far too soon."


Enterprise Senior Staff Writer Chris Knight contributed to this report.



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