December 14, 2012

Area educators react to Conn. shooting by checking security, answering questions

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Word of the Friday morning massacre at a Connecticut elementary school didn't immediately reach pupils at Marcia Buker Elementary School in Richmond, where students were distracted by winter events, including a scheduled holiday concert.

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Virgel Hammonds

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Cornelia Brown

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

MAINE REACTIONS

After Friday's shooting, President Barack Obama ordered American flags lowered to half-staff at public buildings and grounds until Tuesday at sunset. Gov. Paul LePage asked the same for Maine flags until then.

"It is difficult to comprehend the loss of so many innocent lives," LePage said in a statement.

"It is tremendously sad news," said Stephen Bowen, Maine's education commissioner, in a statement. "Our hearts go out to the families and the community."

"Most kiddos and staff were distracted with positivity, and that's probably a good thing," said Virgel Hammonds, superintendent of schools in Hallowell, Farmingdale, Richmond, Dresden and Monmouth, who said he spent all day there.

With laptops making news of the shooting easy to find, however, teachers had to field questions from middle and high school students, he said.

According to news reports by early Friday evening, at least 26 people -- mostly children ages 5 to 10 -- had been killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Hammonds said there were moments of silence for the victims in some district schools. He said some teachers led discussions on the topic.

He said the questions posed were mainly reflexive: "What could have possessed someone do this?" "What's become of our world?" and "What can we do to prevent this from happening?"

Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland said all police officers in Maine are trained for active-shooter situations, and while many schools fall under municipal departments' watch, state troopers with schools on their beats pay close attention to them.

"We're always there as a resource, and it is often not unusual for a trooper to have a presence there," he said, which gives administrators and children familiarity with law enforcement. "It also gives them an opportunity for them to familiarize themselves with the layouts of the school."

Cornelia Brown, superintendent of Augusta schools, said over the past few years her schools have implemented security systems that require buzzing in at a front door, and administrators ensure perimeter doors are locked.

Tragedies give school officials "heightened awareness" of their security, Brown said. So on Friday, she said, administrators in her district double-checked those doors and checked playground areas for unfamiliar faces. She said she called schools to ensure dismissal policies went by the book.

"We have emergency plans and procedures. We practice lockdowns; we practice drills," she said. "It is sadly part of the experience of school now."

Hammonds said in recent weeks he fielded some complaints from parents and staff members who weren't notified before a school in the district had a lockdown drill.

"We want to make it as real as possible and assess our protocols," he said.

Some schools have more security than others. Maine schools must have crisis-and-response plans for a range of emergency situations, from shootings to fires to chemical spills, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

He said statewide, the components of those plans differ, as they're developed locally in connection with police and county-level emergency management agencies.

"The first thing people say is, 'This can't happen here,'" Brown said. "They're always wrong about that."

Joel Lavenson, a Belgrade counselor and trauma expert who said he has two elementary school-age daughters, said when it comes to that saying, the nation needs a cultural change.

"There is no safe little hamlet that's impervious to these goings-on," Lavenson said. "Every single parent is going around saying, 'God, if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.'"

For the victims of traumatic events such as shootings and those who imagine themselves as victims of those events, Lavenson said, the helplessness of the situation can compound the trauma.

To fight that, parents should instruct children to be as active as possible in emergencies, including to keeping an eye on unfamiliar people and thinking of places to hide in schools, all without alarming the children.

"We've got to take the helplessness out of this," Lavenson said. "What parents can say -- until the culture of schools changes -- is to tell your kids to say, 'I don't know this person.'

"Tonight that's what I'm going to teach my kids," he added.

Michael Shepherd -- 621-5632
mshepherd@mainetoday.com

 

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