Island educators offer parents guidance about school shootings
File photo by Lynn Christoffers
As news reports of the deadly shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, rippled across the nation Friday, Martha's Vineyard educators acted swiftly to communicate with school staff members and parents about how best to speak to children about an event that adults found unexplainable.
On Monday, in emails and conversations, school and police officials sought to reassure and comfort students, parents, and teachers upset by an event that seemed, until Friday, unimaginable in a small, close-knit, New England town.
Around 9:30 am Friday, 20-year Adam Lanza reportedly forced his way into the elementary school in the small Connecticut community and shot and killed 20 students and six adults, before fatally shooting himself, according to published reports.
"On Friday, I talked with the principals across the Island, and they sent emails to staff and/or parents, with a couple of things," superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) James Weiss told The Times in a phone call Monday. "First of all, making sure they were aware of what took place, giving them as much positive and correct information as possible, and also many suggestions on how to talk with kids, along with some websites and documents that would be helpful in that regard."
Mr. Weiss said he worked closely with all of the administrators. Each sent out messages tailored to their individual school communities, using a variety of methods that included email blasts and texts.
The gist of the messages was similar, Mr. Weiss said. Principals recommended that teachers and parents answer questions honestly without too much detail, remind students that the tragedy in Newtown was unusual, and reassure them that their school has safety precautions in place.
The emphasis in Island schools Monday was business as usual.
"This morning we're trying to have our school day be as normal and regular as possible, back to schedule if you will, because that's what kids function best with," Mr. Weiss said. "But we have had discussions with the [Martha's Vineyard] Community Services folks at the counseling center, so they're available if we need anything."
Also, each school's crisis team or counseling and guidance staff has met to plan what they would do if students have concerns, he added.
"For older kids, we're certainly talking about it," Mr. Weiss said. "For younger kids, we're letting them initiate the conversation. And that's pretty much where we are. If you look at our buildings, each one has its own little community and kind of views these things differently."
On Friday, Edgartown School administrators sent an email to parents. They also alerted the staff to some of the issues that might arise and to specific students they knew might have a problem in dealing with the news.
In his letter to staff Friday, Edgartown School principal John Stevens reminded everyone that over the weekend the news media would report on the shootings in depth.
"We should be ready for concerns and questions from our students and their parents on Monday," he wrote. "We have procedures and protocol for many types of emergencies as well as drills to prepare for these emergencies. We are fortunate to have school resource officers on our campus. This tragedy is an unfortunate reminder that we must continue to make our students' safety our number one priority."
On Monday, the school resource police officer, school principal, and assistant principal greeted students.
Oak Bluffs listens
At the Oak Bluffs School, principal Richie Smith told The Times that the staff avoided having any group or class meetings about the tragedy so as not to create more fear and anxiety in the children.
In an email to teachers sent Sunday, Mr. Smith said, "This incident is highly traumatizing for all. Our main goal is to help support our children by listening, reassuring, and moving forward with the business of school. If our children bring up the tragedy, talk with them outside of the class when you may have the chance or have them come to guidance.
"Please avoid having any group or class meetings about the tragedy as this may only serve to create more fear and anxiety in our children. While few, some children will not have heard of the incident. Some parents will have tried to shelter their children from this news. This news should not deliberately come from our staff by way of class meetings."
Mr. Smith said the staff's role was to assure children "that we will do all that we can to keep them safe and listen to their concerns."
Tisbury School principal John Custer and West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt sent similar letters to staff and parents, as well.
Chilmark relies on parents
At the Chilmark School the 57 students range in age from preschoolers to fifth-graders.
"It's a little different for us, because we have only young children here," Susan Stevens, head of school at Chilmark School, said in a phone conversation with The Times on Monday. "We recognize that parents want the information their children receive to come from home."
With that in mind, Ms. Stevens assured parents in an email she sent out Friday that the staff would handle questions carefully but hoped not to spend time in any discussions about the event with students. She said she had had a lot of responses from parents. For the most part, she said, parents preferred to speak to their kids and not have them discuss it in school.
"Several child psychologists have given suggestions and the following are ones that would apply to children at an elementary age," Ms. Stevens wrote in an email to parents. "Answer questions honestly, but don't give additional information. Explain to children that this is an isolated, and rare event. Reassure children that school is a safe environment."
Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) principal Steve Nixon sent an email to parents on Friday on EdLine, which is a secure electronic portal on the high school's website. He asked staff to provide a strong visual presence in the halls in welcoming students on Monday morning. Any student who has any emotional or physical reactions to the tragedy would be free to see the School Adjustment Counselors and/or the School Nurse at any time, he added.
"Students will probably ask teachers questions, and we stress that those conversations be honest, but kept to a minimum so as not to upset any child," Mr. Nixon wrote. "We also ask that the adults stress to our young people that we take numerous precautions here at MVRHS to ensure each child's safety. I would like to reassure you that we do have emergency plans in place at the High School and we regularly review and practice these plans."
In addition to Mr. Nixon's email, guidance director Michael McCarthy and the school's adjustment counselors sent an email to the high school staff. It contained some guidelines for responding to students if questions came in in their classrooms:
"Always tell the truth. Respect the integrity of their questions and the integrity of the student. Answer what was asked, being careful not to read your own fears into their question."
Safety measures in place
As part of safety precautions and preparations for emergency situations in Island schools, Mr. Weiss said that Island schools have been conducting lock-down drills for the last four years or so.
"And it was maybe five or six years ago that we had an all-Island training with local police and fire and first responders, and local schools continue to have discussions with them," he said. "But we haven't had an all-Island training in a number of years."
While it is good that Island schools have a system in place, Mr. Weiss said, "You always want to take a look at it. And our buildings are not difficult places to get into, in the sense that none of them have doors with lock systems with buzzers and things of that nature."
Mr. Weiss said what took place in Connecticut happened even though they had all of the right things in place. "And you can only do what you can do, which is what a prudent person would do, and hope for the best," he said. "There is no guarantee. Although I would say to you, schools in general and schools here on the Island are safe places."
On Monday, Edgartown Police Chief Tony Bettencourt posted a message on the town website. "As your Chief of Police and most importantly as a parent, I want you to know that your school officials and the Edgartown Police Department have been and will continue to be in constant communication as a result of the recent tragedy in Connecticut," he wrote.
"Our full-time school resource officers and the entire Police Department will provide a more visible and vigilant presence at our school without disrupting normal school activities.
"Our officers have received specialized training in these incidents and we will continue to train for such unfortunate horrific incidents. Please be confident that we are committed to providing our students with the best protection possible."
Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy has declared Friday, Dec. 21 a "Day of Mourning" in the state of Connecticut and requested that residents statewide participate in a moment of silence at 9:30 am. Bells in churches and buildings across the state will be rung 26 times in honor of each life lost.
Mr. Malloy has written to every governor in every state asking each state to consider joining Connecticut on Friday during this time of reflection and mourning.