By John Burton
It’s an anxious time for parents and educators, as they take stock of security at their schools and talk to children following the tragic shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn.
William George, superintendent of schools for Middletown, said he immediately started getting calls from worried parents as information about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, Dec. 14, began to unfold. “I know so did the building principals,” from around the district, he said.
“I’ve been listening to parents and getting community feedback and concerns,” he said. “They are concerned about student safety.”
Along with addressing and allaying those concerns, George said, he has been in discussions with Middletown Police Chief Robert Oches and department members to evaluate the district’s security plans and protocols to determine if anything needs to be modified.
“We have to make sure everybody knows (the plan) and is following it,” he said.
As the district’s approximate 10,000 students returned on Monday morning. George said he believed it was “a very difficult day for parents, putting their kids on buses, sending them back to school.”
Brian Sullivan, a Fair Haven resident, was picking up his son, Noah, a sixth-grader at Fair Haven’s Knollwood School on Tuesday when he too acknowledged his concerns, conceding “it’s definitely anxiety producing.
“You know in your mind lightning doesn’t strike twice,” he said. “But. in your heart…”
“I think what’s really, really important here is to keep things in perspective,” said Denise Wegeman, a clinical social worker and part-time counselor at Manasquan High School.
Parents’ concerns for the safety of their children is natural and expected, especially in light of a tragedy of this magnitude involving children. “But step back, take a breath … realize it’s not an everyday occurrence,” Wegeman advised.
The important thing for parents to remember is: “How they react is going to impact on how their children are going to react,” Wegeman said. If parents show signs of anxiety, “some of that anxiety is going to rub off on the children.”
Parents and guardians who have worries could and should reach out to school administrators and find out about what provisions are in place, she recommended.
“For parents, be aware: Does your school have a plan? Yes, they do. Do they practice it?” Wegeman said. “I would say they probably do.”
The state Department of Education requires public school districts to have emergency plans in place.
In Middletown’s case, George said, the plan for the district’s 17 schools was drafted with input from educators and police, and the Middletown Office of Emergency Management. The procedures used must adhere to guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The district regularly conducts drills to test the responses to various scenarios, he said.
“It’s a fluid document,” George said and it changes periodically. George said he has had conversations with police about the plan with follow-up discussions scheduled for after the holiday break.
“Our goal in this is identification and communication of potential danger in real time to protect our students and staff,” George said.
Many districts have taken the proactive step of immediately sending information home with students to assure families every necessary precaution is being taken, Wegeman noted.
Red Bank Superintendent of Schools Laura Morana sent notices home on Dec. 14 to parents. Red Bank also conducts drills, has a plan and requires school visitors to be buzzed into buildings after identifying themselves.
“Unfortunately, something as tragic as this could happen anywhere,” Morana acknowledged.
She too has been in conversations with Red Bank Police Chief Stephen McCarthy to reevaluate procedures the schools follow in emergency situations.
In Red Bank police officers make regular, unannounced visits to the school to just check in, meaning officers have become a regular, unexceptional sight in the buildings, Morana said, adding what she believes is an additional layer of protection.
As for possible issues raised by parents, Morana said, she hasn’t heard any from families. However, she believes it’s prudent to make a presentation about the security plan for families at the next Parent Teacher Organization meeting in January.
Wegeman plans a meeting with staff members in her school to address concerns from those who are parents about the impact the shooting is having on families.
“Many of their kids are nervous about their parents going to work,” she said.
She plans to advise them on how to handle that situation.
Overall for families the key to addressing concerns is, “structure, support, and control,” she said.
The more structure there is coming from the parents, the safer children will feel, she said.
“You can’t let the children feel your fear,” said Marie Placenti, who was picking up her grandson, a fourth-grader at Knollwood School. “It’s not fair to them.”