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Local parents grapple with horrific news of school shooting

Fred Ciaglo, a math and science teacher at Hadley Elementary School, said he felt “numb with sadness” upon learning of the deadly shootings Friday at an elementary school in Connecticut.

Ciaglo, who also coaches the varsity girls basketball team at Hopkins Academy in Hadley, said the random violence that took 27 lives, including 20 children, seemed to hit home particularly hard because of the school’s location, about a two-hour drive from the Pioneer Valley.

“You send your kids to school, you think they’re safe, then something like this happens,” he said. “It kind of puts things in perspective about what’s important in life. I can’t say that enough.”

Julie Spencer-Robison, a sixth-grade teacher at Northampton’s JFK Middle School, said she and her colleagues grappled with the unfolding tragedy out of Newtown, Conn., Friday while trying to conduct classes as usual.

“You can’t make sense out of something so senseless,” she said. “Targeting children, that’s so heart-breaking. You would think that an elementary school would be off-limits. There is nothing rational about this.”

Northampton teachers are well-trained to handle similar threats, Spencer-Robinson said. “We know what to do. I’m glad we’re well-prepared for that,” she said.

But there is still the delicate balance of informing students that the world can be a bitter place so they aren’t shocked by terrible news at the end of the school day, she said.

“I used 9/11 as my guide,” she said, referring to the terrorist attacks of 2001. “We have to try to help students make sense of things that are impossible to understand. The first thing one of my students said was, ‘Why do people have guns?’ I think gun control needs to become part of our national conversation.”

At the end of the day, emotional school staffers clung to each other, she said. “We were all hugging each other,” she said.

Despite the horror of Friday’s events, the conclusion of classes at Bridge Street School seemed to go on as normal, with no apparent heightened level of anxiety.

Michael Filas, father of two children in the first and third grades at Bridge Street, said his concern is that Friday’s rampage may inspire someone else to do something similar.

“This is scary,” he said.

Filas said he heard about the shooting about an hour before arriving at the school. While he didn’t have specific concerns about his children’s safety, he made it a point to arrive early to pick them up.

He said he expects school officials will correspond with parents, bringing them up to date on school safety measures and listing resources for students who may need help coping.

Filas said members of his family are infrequent television viewers and that most of the information likely to inundate airwaves in coming days probably won’t be deeply absorbed by his children.

“We don’t want to make it a focal point,” he said.

Filas said he’s comfortable with the precautions the school has in place, including running drills in student evacuations and building lock-downs.

“The school seems to be as proactive as necessary,” he said.

Vigil planned

The Rev. Vicki Kemper of Amherst’s First Congregational Church is planning an interfaith vigil for Saturday night. Several faith communities in the area are planning to attend, she said.

Kemper said her church wants to give people “a place to grieve and comfort each other, a place to come together, to come to grips with this senseless tragedy.”

The event starts at 5 p.m. in the 165 Main St. church with a half-hour prayer service, then moves outdoors for a candlelight vigil. Rev. Kemper asked participants to bring their own candles.

“It’s time for people to come together and pray for the families of the children and all those affected by gun violence,” she said.

Spencer-Robinson, mother of an 8-year-old son who attends Leeds School, a daughter, 15, and son 18, said the tragedy in Connecticut makes her feel protective toward her own children. Picking up her son from Bradley International Airport on Friday, after he flew home from his first semester at college, “I hugged him extra tight,” she said.

“I’m going to hug my wife in a different way. I’m going to hug my kids until they squeal,” said Ciaglo, the Hadley teacher.

Easthampton mother Dawn M. Young, a paraprofessional at Easthampton High School with two daughters in White Brook Middle School and two sons in Center-Pepin and Maple elementary schools, said the tragedy hits home with all parents, no matter where they live.

“It doesn’t matter where it happened; a neighbor has lost their kid,” she said. “We have to try and get through this together.”

The Connecticut shooting is “appalling, disgusting and painful” and should act as “an eye-opener to all the schools,” Young said.

While other school shootings have occurred out West and in the South, the tragedy in the Nutmeg State shows the potential for deadly school invasions “is everywhere,” she said.

Young said schools across the nation need to upgrade security measures, adding, “I’ve got to ask: How did a 20-year-old get into a school with a machine gun?”

Children should understand that school safety drills are the best way to prepare for the grim reality that gun violence can affect anyone at any time, she said. “As sick as it is, this is what we have to prepare our kids for,” she said.

Still, “we don’t live in a bubble” and have to balance a desire for safety with the need to live in community with others, Young said.

“Otherwise, I’d be living out in the woods and home schooling my kids,” she said.

Dan Perreault of Easthampton, a parent representative on the Center-Pepin Elementary School Council and youth coach for soccer, baseball and basketball, said the school shooting “is almost impossible to wrap your mind around.”

Newtown “reminds us of our town,” he said. “You never, ever think it would happen in your town. It seems it’s happening more and more.”

Perreault said he was particularly impressed by how calmly the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School handled the danger, lining up children, telling them to hold hands and close their eyes, then leading them to safety. “They were so professional. They were the real heroes,” he said.

The father of a Center-Pepin second-grader, Perreault said he and his wife struggled to explain the tragedy to his son without upsetting the boy.

“We just told him that sometimes bad things happen in life, and he seemed to accept that,” Perreault said. “He’s very inquisitive and usually asks a lot of questions, but he just put his arms around us and gave us a hug.”

He said his thoughts turn towards the parents who lost their children in the shooting: “Christmas is 10 days away. How do you rebound from that?”

To avoid continuous news reports on the school shooting, Perreault took his son to an Easthampton High School basketball game on Friday night, where a moment of silence — “It felt like five minutes,” he said — was held for the victims. Upon returning home, he retrieved a phone message from Superintendent Nancy Follansbee detailing school safety measures and offering counseling to students.

“That was really reassuring,” he said.


Local educators respond to Connecticut school shooting

Friday, December 14, 2012

NORTHAMPTON — Local educators reacted to news of the massacre Friday at an elementary school 72 miles away in Connecticut as if it had happened to one of their own. Administrators met at 3 p.m. at district headquarters to discuss how to respond to the tragedy. Jackson Street School Principal Gwen Agna arrived with her face wet with tears. “This …

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