City, schools respond to Newtown shooting with serious concern
In the wake of Friday’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, people across the country are struggling to make sense of a massacre that was senseless.
The gunman, a troubled 20-year-old named Adam Lanza, didn’t just kill 26 people, 20 of them children. He also extinguished the sense of security that kids and their parents associate with school.
Kids living in Claremont and attending schools here may, like those in every community, be experiencing sadness and fear, as well as some pressing questions: Why did the Sandy Hook tragedy occur? And could something like this happen in Claremont?
Parents and staff at local schools may also be shaken. With this in mind, the Claremont Unified School District is being proactive when it comes to communicating with the community about the shooting and the school’s policies with regards to potential on-campus violence.
Early Friday afternoon, Associate Pastor Eileen Gebbie from the Claremont United Church of Christ organized a candlelight vigil at the church’s Kingman Chapel. About 60 residents attended to pray, reflect and share concerns as Ms. Gebbie offered the microphone to anyone who wanted to vent.
On Sunday, December 16, Superintendent Jim Elsasser drafted a letter, which he emailed to all CUSD families and posted on the district’s website:
“It has been difficult watching the news, and our hearts go out to the members of…[the Sandy Hook Elementary School] community and all who devote their lives to loving and raising children,” he said.
Student safety is a high priority at Claremont schools, according to Mr. Elsasser, a commitment that has been further reinforced by the recent shooting.
“We will continually work to maximize student and employee safety in our schools,” he emphasized.
Preventative measures the district is undertaking, Mr. Elsasser said, include “maintaining excellent relationships with the police department and city officials, regularly practicing school-wide drills, including lockdown drills, to prepare for worst-case scenarios and maintaining an emergency communication system that we use to connect quickly with our parents by phone and/or email.”
His letter comes not only from a school official but also from a father, Mr. Elsasser noted.
“As a parent of 3 children, I, like you, have addressed this issue with my family. A website that was of particular help to me was www.nasponline.org,” the superintendent said, referring to the website of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
Some CUSD students may not be deeply affected by the Sandy Hook shooting because it didn’t occur in their community. For those who are distressed, or for families who feel it is important to use this tragedy to communicate about potential school violence, the NASP site recommends specific talking points that can be used and modified in a way that is age-appropriate for children.
“In times like these, we are reminded that every single adult in our school community contributes to students’ safety and wellbeing,” Mr. Elsasser concluded. “Thank you for caring, loving and doing all you do for the children in CUSD.”
NASP has also created a fact sheet—Tips for Teachers and Parents Following Community Violence—that district administrators have uploaded onto the CUSD website (www.cusd.claremont.edu). In the wake of violent events like the Sandy Hook shooting, all adults are advised to “model calm and controlled behaviors and reassure children that they are safe….” Children should also be told that it is okay to feel upset and encouraged to verbalize their thoughts and feelings, the tip sheet stresses, adding that adults should “observe children’s emotional state” and “tell children the truth and answer the questions they may have honestly.”
When discussing events like the tragedy at Sandy Hook, adults are urged to stick to the facts and explain things in a way that is appropriate for children’s maturity level. NASP is additionally advising parents to limit or stop watching TV news or listening to radio coverage of this or any other occurrence of community violence while children are around. The organization also reminds adults that they should also be aware of the effects of ongoing media coverage of violent events on their own wellbeing.
The news blackout is especially important for preschool children, according to The Preschool at Claremont United Methodist director Jeri Bollman. In fact, unless a very young child directly expresses concern about the Sandy Hook shooting or a similarly violent event that occurred in another community, adults shouldn’t go out of their way to discuss it, she said.
“I’m hoping that all of my parents are keeping the news to themselves,” she said. “Preschoolers shouldn’t be exposed to that—they can’t understand it. They’re just way too little.”
Ms. Bollman has shared something via email with the families of the preschool, a warm and reassuring quote by the late and beloved children’s television personality Fred Rogers, which has gone viral on social media outlets like Facebook in the wake of the Sandy Hook incident.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,” Mr. Rogers said. “To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”
Any student who is experiencing anxiety with regards to the Sandy Hook shooting, or any kind of mental distress, is encouraged to reach out to a caring adult, said Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Mike Bateman. Teachers and parents who are concerned about any CUSD student’s state of mind can likewise seek guidance at their respective school sites. Each Claremont school has a psychologist prepared to meet with students, Mr. Bateman said, and there are also a number of mental health interns from the University of La Verne on hand to help provide counseling.
Along with helping the CUSD community come to grips with the emotional effects of the Newtown shooting, the district is putting a renewed focus on safety, Mr. Bateman noted.
“We’re making sure that we’re still following everything we’ve put in place since Columbine—all of the safety measures,” Mr. Bateman said. “We want to make sure everyone is aware of them so that if something happens, everyone knows what to do.”
Emergency preparedness measures the district has undertaken in recent years include multiple lockdown practices each year, cameras at the high school and the yearly updating of emergency plans. The district works especially closely with the Claremont Police Department, according to Mr. Bateman. Local police have had trainings at the high school in which they act out a response to a mock shooting. They have also benefited greatly from a web-based program called Rapid Responder.
If there is ever an incident of violence on a Claremont campus, the Claremont Police Department can use the program for instant access to the school plans, complete with pictures and a diagram of all the doors and classrooms on campus.
“Our schools are very safe, but things can happen,” Mr. Bateman said. “We’re making sure we fine-tune things.”