Local educators respond to Connecticut school shooting
Northampton School Superintendent Brian Salzer talks with administrators Friday about how to respond to the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children died. Purchase photo reprints »
Northampton School Superiontendent Brian Salzer meets Friday with front right, Pam Plomer, Johanna McKenna, Karen Jarvis-Vance, and Laurie Farkas to talk about how to respond to the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children died. Purchase photo reprints »
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 is so sad, so sad,” she said. “Parents at the bus stop today were asking me, ‘What do we say to our kids? What can we say?’”
“We don’t know how far reaching this is going to be,” said Northampton High School Principal Nancy Athas. “Some people might have family involved.”
At the elementary schools, administrators said the focus will be on allowing students to express their feelings without dwelling too intensely on the specific details of the incident.
“It’s important to tell the children we’re not going to keep talking about this on and on,” said Margaret Riddle, principal of R.K. Finn Ryan Road School Principal, who sent a letter home to parents on Friday. “We want to tell them we can keep them safe.”
Laurie Farkas, director of student services for Northampton, noted that the well-being of children has to be the driving force, even though teachers and staff are naturally traumatized as well.
“I’d say to the teachers, their need to talk about this is not the same for children,” she said. “I learned that being a principal on 9/11.”
Earlier in the day, Northampton Superintendent Brian Salzer said he sent word to all principals asking that access to TV and newspaper reports about the shootings should be shut off so as not to upset students.
Then he convened an afternoon meeting Friday where administrators reviewed age-appropriate ways to talk with students about events they’d likely be seeing in the media all weekend.
In so doing, they were walking a difficult line.
In the wake of the heartbreaking news of a school shooting in which 27 peple died, they were trying to respond in ways that were both reassuring and “realistic.”
They agreed to convene crisis teams in all six city schools on Monday morning to provide support for students. Principals were urged to be visible in all classrooms and Salzer said he would contact the Police Department about an updated assessment of safety measures in all school buildings.
Johanna McKenna, the district’s academic effectivess director, stressed the need to pay particular attention to elementary schoolchildren.
“I’m so concerned about the little ones now because this will feel less remote to them, like it’s their school,” she said.
Salzer said communications with students need to be straightforward.
“We want to reassure kids that they’re safe but also want to be realistic,” he said. “These things are so unpredictable. Our schools are as safe as they can be.”
Area schools mobilize
School leaders in other area communities were sending out similar messages to students and parents in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
In Easthampton, an all-district phone call was slated for 6 p.m. Friday to assure families that, as Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said, “we take all precautions to ensure that our schools are as safe as we can make them.”
Safety measure include having all schools locked during the day and monitored by video cameras. Entrance is “given to individuals only after they have identified themselves to the person in the office who is monitoring the camera,” Follansbee said, in an email message Friday afternoon.
Amherst Superintendent Maria Geryk said in an email statement to the Gazette that staff would be available to work with students and family as needed on Monday. “In the meantime, information is posted on our district website to help parents and guardians in speaking with their children about the incident,” she said.
While taking steps to communicate with school families, administrators were also coping with emotions sparked by news reports of schoolchildren and staff fatally shot in their offices and classrooms.
“Our hearts go out to the families and community members touched by today’s tragedy,” Geryk wrote in her statement. “Understandably, incidents such as this are upsetting even for those who do not have a personal connection with the victims.”
Other steps taken
At their meeting on Friday, Northampton administrators said they’d received a few calls from parents concerned about the shootings. Many teachers were still getting up to speed on events, having been in class when reports of the shootings became public.
“Sometimes when these things happen, people want more of a police presence in the schools,” Salzer said. “What do you think about that?”
Karen Jarvis-Vance, the district’s director of health services, education and safety, said studies show more police in the schools “is not a deterrent to these things happening. Locked doors and locked access are what make a difference.”
Others noted that even the best safety measures aren’t a surefire guarantee against tragedy.
Sandy Hook “was a school that knew all the drills and everyone seemed to do exactly what they were supposed to,” McKenna said.
Participants agreed that even small measures would go a long way toward helping students cope when they return on Monday.
Joseph Smith, principal of Leeds School, said he planned to spend more time visiting classrooms and “just being visible.”
At Northampton High and JFK Middle schools, students will be invited to discuss the incident and their feelings about it in small-group advisories set for Monday and Tuesday.