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Newtown woman with Shelburne link reflects on shootings

On Friday morning, Heather Peck of Newtown, Conn., received the kind of emergency phone call any parent would dread: A recorded voice-mail from the school superintendent about an “unconfirmed school shooting” and a lockdown of all the schools within the district.

“I did go online immediately after that first call,” said Peck, a part-time school psychologist and mother of two. Her husband, Christopher Peck, is a Shelburne native, and her inlaws, Bill and Mary Peck, formerly of Shelburne, now live in Newtown, too.

What she found on the Internet were reports indicating that the shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Her own children, ages 7 and 9, attend the Hawley Elementary School, only a mile from Sandy Hook.

Peck said she was aware of three ambulances going from the elementary school to the hospital. But around noon, she learned there were more than 20 shootings at the school from the news on TV.

“When the news came out, my phone started ringing off the hook, from family and friends all over the country,” she said.

Her husband was in New York City on business when the emergency occurred. Throughout Friday, she texted him with constant updates.

Peck said she refrained from rushing to the school, to try to get her children because, as a psychologist, she knew “the best thing to do in a crisis is to maintain calmness.” She said parents rushing to the school in droves wouldn’t help the situation.

The kids were told “there was a lockdown because of a school emergency,” she said. But school officials left it to the parents to tell the children exactly what happened. “They did a very good job. I think all the teachers are heroes. They were aware of what was going on,” she said, but they continued teaching.

“I faced the task that afternoon of clearing my head and telling (her children) what they needed to know,” she said. “I knew, in part, their innocence was going to be broken.”

“They’ve handled it very well, so far.” When her children came home, her 9-year-old said: “It was the strangest day. We had this lockdown, but it wasn’t like a drill.” Peck said she told her children she had some very sad news to tell them.

“Guidelines for children are: Give them the basic facts. Answer their questions as honestly and simply as possible. But you couldn’t get away from the fact that 20 children died,” she said.

Since then, she said, the children have been asking lots of questions. “But I don’t think they understand the magnitude of it.”

“We tried to have a nice weekend together, with just the family,” she said. “I think the magnitude of what has happened will hit them tomorrow,” she said, meaning when school resumes Tuesday.

She did not let her children watch the news coverage on TV. And although she thinks President Barack Obama’s presence in Newtown Sunday was very important, she did not let the children hear his full speech.

“What we did with Obama’s speech last night, was we recorded it, and watched it to see if it was appropriate for our kids to watch.” She let her children watch part of Obama’s speech, but not the part in which he named all the shooting victims.

“It’s such a close-knit community,” she said. Although her children didn’t know any of the shooting victims, some of their friends knew them.

On Monday, while the school district was closed, Peck said school officials were meeting to discuss how best to talk to schoolchildren and their parents about the tragedy.

Peck said she goes back to work Tuesday, at another district, and will also be helping school officials there to address this tragedy.

“We’ve already determined that teachers should have conversations with children in the third grade and up.” She said there will be individual and small group support for children experiencing particular difficulty and who need support.

Peck said the town has been flooded with both news media and with “people who have driven from all over, just to come to visit.”

“Actually, I was going to take my kids today into Sandy Hook, to see the beautiful memorials that have been created there. But traffic was so backed up, we turned around.”

Instead, the children spent Monday afternoon baking cookies with their grandmother, Mary Peck.

Heather Peck says she’s “extremely relieved” that her children are safe. “At the same time, there’s that wrenching feeling for the other families,” she said

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