‘This is a violation of the sanctity of the school house’ -- Gazette.Net


Related story: Helping students cope with tragic events at Conn. school

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

Students in the Washington, D.C., metro area returned to school Monday to extra security and grief counselors.

It was the first full school day since 20 first-grade students and six staff members were gunned down at a Connecticut elementary school on Friday. The apparent shooter, Adam Lanza, also reportedly took his own life.

Memorials and tributes, including one at which President Barack Obama spoke, took place in Newtown, Conn., during the weekend.

And Monday, as schools opened, educators and experts said the focus was on making sure that students felt safe following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

There also was a focus on ensuring that teachers — shaken by the tragedy — had the support that they need.

“A lot of teachers feel that this is a violation of the sanctity of the school house,” said Michael Doerrer, a spokesman for Frederick County Public Schools.

Police officers stood outside of elementary schools in Montgomery County on Friday afternoon and Monday morning, providing police presence as a way to reassure parents, according to Montgomery County police.

The officers were at most elementary schools, said police spokesperson Angela Cruz.

Montgomery Superintendent Joshua P. Starr sent out his condolences to the families of Newtown in a press release Friday, stating that Montgomery will continue to make safety a top priority.

The school system recently installed surveillance cameras outside of all its elementary schools, and some schools have systems to check identification of visitors.

School counselors were available throughout the day Monday to help students and staff cope, Starr wrote.

In Prince George’s County, police officials and school leaders are reviewing policies and already have increased patrols in and around school buildings.

Security officials with the school system said they will look at how camera systems are used and the effectiveness of entryway and visitor protocols.

County schools interim Superintendent Alvin Crawley said officials need to make sure they are in good communication with staff members at individual schools and are having county police officers work closely with school security officers at each school.

A moment of silence was held throughout Prince George’s schools at 10 a.m. Monday to grieve the victims in Connecticut and offer condolences. Flags also were lowered to half-mast at each county school.

“I’m at a loss for words. This is such a heinous incident. My heart just breaks for the entire community. What can you say? I couldn’t imagine what 6- and 7-year-olds could do to threaten an adult,” said Michael Blow, the school system’s director of security services.

Blow said in the aftermath of this event and on any other day, parents, students or staff members should report any suspicious activity, “no matter how minor.”

Prince George’s police Maj. George Nadar, commander of the department’s District 3, said about 80 percent of all school shootings involve a known threat prior to the incident, and said police and school officials need to be on alert for any potential threats or signs that could evolve into an actual shooting.

Some school employees suggested that schools should keep their front doors locked and only accessible through key cards or other automatic unlocking methods.

“Anybody on the street could walk right in here,” said Judette Adams, a school nurse at Thomas Pullen Elementary School in Landover. “I’m just petrified. Not for myself, but for the children.”

A candlelight vigil was scheduled in Frederick on Monday to remember those who died in Friday’s shooting and show support for Newtown, Conn.

The event, set to begin at 7 p.m. at Centerville Elementary School in Ijamsville, was organized by Noelle Tate, a mother of two.

“I’ve been deeply affected by the tragic events that took place on Friday,” Tate said in a news release. “As a mother, I weep at the thought of those children being brutally murdered while innocently going about their school day. I grieve for the parents whose pain will never subside. I know that there are other parents feeling this way, and I want to give everyone an opportunity to mourn these children and honor their young lives. I also want to show people that we won’t just forget about this and move on, that this will cause change. Their deaths cannot be in vain.”

Frederick County schools reopened Monday with increased security in place.

Staff also were focused on maintaining students’ normal routines and making them feel safe.

Doerrer said that schools Monday also had more school resource officers on hand.

School resource officers, who are Frederick County Sheriff’s deputies, typically are based at the county’s 10 high schools, but Monday were asked to make sure they make extra patrols at arrival and dismissal times at the system’s 36 elementary schools.

The measure, Doerrer said, is intended to remind students and parents that the school system is working in close collaboration with law enforcement to ensure that their school communities are safe.

“We are always looking to make sure that our procedures are as strong as they can be,” Doerrer said.

Frederick County schools already have safety measures and emergency plans, which are reviewed and practiced periodically, Doerrer said.

“Our teachers know exactly what to do,” he said.

All 66 schools in the system are locked during the school day. The majority of the schools in the system have buzzer systems, and in many cases visitors have to go through the main office in order to get inside the building, he said. All schools except one have security cameras, Doerrer said.

He would not say which school lacks cameras for security reasons, but said it was an elementary school.

Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) agreed with Doerrer and said his deputies have been working closely with school officials for years to ensure that students and schools are protected in case of an emergency.

“We continually look at schools,” said Jenkins, who expressed confidence that schools in Frederick County are prepared to respond in case of an emergency.

“I think we work together very effectively,” he said Monday.

Officials also made sure that a guidance counselor or a school psychologist was available at every school in case students or their teachers need support, said Janet Shipman, the school system’s coordinator for counseling and student support.

It was up to leaders at each school to feel the pulse of its community and decide whether counselors should approach teachers and students or just make themselves available for conversation and questions.

By Monday, many schools including Centerville, Brunswick, New Market, Urbana, Deer Crossing and New Midway elementaries and Woodsboro Primary sent out notices reminding parents about the safety measures they have in place.

In an email to parents on Monday, Cynthia Houston, principal at Woodsboro Primary and New Midway Elementary schools, said the school received emails from parents asking if the school would be planning to share with students details of the Newtown tragedy.

“While we cannot promise that they will not hear something about what occurred from other students, we do promise to be extra vigilant and would like to reassure you that teachers, administrators, and staff will not be holding discussions on the topic,” Houston told parents in her email. “Our plan is to address student concerns as they arise and respond on an individual basis.”

At Centerville Elementary, principal Steve Raff said he received two emails from parents asking for details about school safety measures. In response, he sent out an email Sunday stressing that the school is prepared to protect students in case of emergency.

At Centerville, the school, including portable classrooms, are locked after the start of the school day and visitors are monitored using 12 security cameras, Raff said.

Raff said as students returned to school for the first full day since the shooting, the focus of teachers was on providing students with a normal routine.

While staff members decided to wear green and white — the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary — they did not share that with students. Raff, his assistant principal and the school’s guidance counselor were visiting classrooms as they usually do, but paying special attention to whether students or teachers were showing signs of grief or distress, Raff said.

Despite all the precautions, Raff said he did not get any questions from students related to the tragedy.

Doerrer also said he did not get any phone calls from teachers, though he acknowledged that the events in Connecticut have shaken educators throughout the country.

Gary Brennan, the president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, agreed.

Brennan said over the weekend he heard from a number of educators upset by the tragedy. Brennan’s wife is an elementary school teacher and was also stunned by the news, he said.

“She kept thinking all of her classes," he said. "The first thing that parents expect is that when they send their children to school they will be safe.”

jbondeson@gazette.net, djgross@gazette.net, mraycheva@gazette.net