As details of Friday’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., emerged, local school administrators mourned the loss of the young lives and hoped to reassure parents and guardians that they take every precaution to keep their schoolchildren and staff safe on a daily basis.
Dr. Richard Bales, Johnson City Schools superintendent, said he viewed the events as nothing but a tragedy.
“My reaction is just how tragic any shooting incident is, but how horrific it is when it involves ... children and the loss of life. I don’t know that we can ever be truly as prepared as need to be, but just the loss of life, especially a child’s life, is just horrific,” Bales said. “It’s just such a mind-blowing thing to occur that there are students whose lives are over.”
He said Johnson City Schools each year updates its comprehensive safety plan and administrators and teachers are thoroughly trained on specific plans and instructions on what to do should an incident occur at one of the schools.
“We’ve also had outside people who are safety experts ... sort of review and access our plans and even do on-site visits at our schools and make recommendations for any alternatives or changes that we might need,” Bales said. “The last few years we’ve been able to add video cameras and then those buzz-button entries at the schools. We also have (school resource officers) at our schools ... available and a presence at the schools at all times.”
Students, faculty, staff and administration also practice drills for critical incidents throughout each school year, including lockdown drills, to help prepare everyone should something occur.
Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes said he was told of the shooting around noon Friday.
“It’s horrifying,” Dykes said. “It’s simply beyond description. Anytime you’re thinking about death, but certainly when it applies to children specifically, and even more so when it involves primary grade children, I mean it’s ... simply revolting and shocking. Our (hearts) and prayers go out to the families and their community.”
He said Washington County has an official crisis plan if a tragedy should happen at one of the schools.
“Everything from a catastrophic weather event to intruders ... and shooters. We practice these events all throughout the year,” Dykes said.
Dykes said he feels the county’s schools do take many protective measures, including buzz-in only access at the front the school and locking all other entries into the school.
Dykes said each visitor first must state their name and business pertaining to the school through an outside call system with the receptionist inside the school. Visitors to schools must be escorted through the halls and also are sometimes given a pass and an identification sticker.
“You are monitored by video surveillance all throughout the building, from the moment you actually come on campus because many of our campuses have outside cameras as well as inside cameras,” he said. “We have expanded our SROs. We’ve added two more this year ... with the help of the sheriff’s office, and there’s a presence of law enforcement on our campuses to add a more pronounced level of security.”
Dr. Jill McCarley, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at East Tennessee State University, said Friday’s shooting rampage will affect children in other parts of the country.
She said children everywhere could experience anxiety related to the shooting and possibly not want to go to school.
“This will have international effects,” she said. “We saw this after Columbine. We saw this after the World Trade Center fell on 9/11. It’ll be on every TV screen for the next week. Everybody will be talking about it and kids present, not only watching the TV, but hearing adults talk about it.”
McCarley suggested parents monitor children’s media exposure to the shooting coverage, not completely censor it, but limit it. Parents should also offer support and comfort to children who may have questions about the shooting. Encourage children to ask questions, McCarley said.
Children in their middle or even later teens may have serious concerns and fears about the shooting, too, she said.
“Comment back on what you are seeing out of your child,” she said.
Exploring children’s feeling allows parents to offer sympathy and concern and support, McCarley said.
She said it is very likely some children may be hesitant to return to school, particularly with younger children who may be generally anxious.
In this case, parents should reinforce that their child’s school does have safety protocols in place to protect them. Focusing on positive events in the news is also a good way to reinforce positive thoughts.
“Get the kid to focus on the heroes of the day, to talk about the ambulance drivers, to talk about the policeman, to talk about the doctors and nurses at the hospital who are working to save lives,” she said. “Say, you know, ‘We’ve got big, strong people who are there to help and to save people’ and kind of focus on the heroes of the day.”
McCarley recommended parents encouraging their children to speak with guidance counselors regarding school safety if they are still unsettled. Do not encourage them to miss school, though, she said.
If a child is experiencing severe anxiety regarding the shooting, McCarley recommended seeing the child’s physician or visiting some other health care provider.