By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON
---- — PLATTSBURGH — With the recent Connecticut school shooting weighing heavily on their hearts, local school officials focus on the safety and well-being of their own students.
“This type of tragedy is what we all pray never happens in our schools and hope that if it does, we are prepared to make decisions that ensure the safety of all our communities’ children,” said Peru Intermediate School Principal Scott Storms.
As news of the tragic events spread throughout the nation last Friday, many area school leaders made plans to review their districts’ safety procedures with faculty and staff.
“Having an opportunity to periodically revisit our plans assures that everyone is familiar with the procedures,” Storms said.
The challenge, according to Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Dr. Randy Richards, is inherent: how to best provide safety in buildings — schools — that were designed for open public access.
While district safety plans are reliable and sound, according to Saranac Central Superintendent Kenneth Cringle, “the critical factor is that staff must remain vigilant in their efforts to recognize any threat to the school community.”
The ability to recognize potential threats before they come to fruition is an important component to school safety, agreed Kevin Hulbert, principal of Keeseville Elementary School.
“This event will remind us to be even more vigilant when it comes to recognizing and becoming aware of signs of emotional stress and mental illness in our students and visitors,” Hulbert said.
“Additionally, we will be even more heedful when it comes to following all of our procedures that are in place to keep everyone safe.”
Such procedures should also be continually evaluated and adjusted, said Chazy Elementary Principal Thomas Tregan.
“Changes are inevitable,” he said. “We will focus on the obvious, as well as the ‘what ifs,’ as we re-evaluate our procedures.”
In addition, he noted, schools must promote communities of respect, work closely will local law and social-service agencies and allocate assets for school-safety efforts.
“It is paramount that our state and federal government officials step forward and provide us with funds to provide for additional safety mechanisms,” Tregan said.
Northern Adirondack Central School Superintendent Laura Marlow added that people must advocate for legislation and controls to be put in place regarding the sale and distribution of firearms.
But while events like the Connecticut shooting naturally raise concerns about the safety of schools, Hulbert said, statistics indicate that schools are some of the safest public spaces.
“To me, events like this are similar in a way to airplane crashes; when they occur, it is a huge tragedy and incredibly scary, but riding in a car is statistically much riskier, just as being in many other public places in the (United States) are statistically much less safe than public schools,” he said.
“However, we all want our schools to continue to make sure everyone is as safe as possible at all times.”
And, Storms said, “events like this tragedy increase fear in all of us.”
MISTAKE SPURS ALARM
At Keeseville Elementary, Lake Placid Elementary and Northern Adirondack Central, plans have been made to provide parents with resources and information about how to address such tragedies with their children.
And Cringle noted that he corresponded over the weekend with district parents who had security questions and tried to assure them of the school’s efforts to keep students safe.
But parents’ concerns over the safety of their children were evident at Saranac Elementary on Monday, when an automated message was accidentally sent to all district parents telling them that their children were absent from school that day.
The school became aware of the error within minutes and sent out a second automated message telling parents to disregard the first, but many parents were understandably alarmed, calling and even going to the school to see for themselves that their children were safe.
“We just did everything we could to reassure them.” said Saranac Elementary Principal Tracy Manor, who noted that the timing of the mistake couldn’t have been worse, as parents were already shaken by the events in Connecticut.
The school had only been using the messaging system — commonly used by other schools to alert parents of absences and school events — for a few days when the error occurred.
“Internal controls have been put in place to prevent that from happening in the future,” Manor said.
The best way to help people feel safe in schools, according to AuSable Valley Central Superintendent Paul Savage, is to maintain open lines of communication with students, teachers, staff and the public.
“Safety is a unified effort, and open communication and trust are essential cornerstones to helping ensure safety for our schools,” he said.
Faculty and staff at school districts across the North Country came to class Monday prepared to address the range of emotions and questions students might have regarding the events in Connecticut and school safety in general.
At Saranac Elementary, fourth-grade teacher Jacolyn Utzler heard her students discussing the tragedy among themselves and began the day by asking if anyone had anything they wanted to ask or share.
Utzler said she spent time reminding the children about all the adults who work together in the school to keep them safe and how their school is fortunate to have locks on their classroom doors, as well as on the building’s external doors.
The discussion, she said, seemed to be reassuring to the students.
“I think there was a sigh of relief,” she said.
In response to children’s questions about why someone would enter a school and harm children, Utzler explained that mental illness can cause people to do things they wouldn’t do if they were well.
“We talked about illness and (how) as human beings, we don’t look to go and hurt other people,” she said.
The teacher also encouraged her students to think about all the people who were helping the families affected by the tragedy and the good things that people can continue to do for others.
At Chazy Elementary, Tregan said, staff are being encouraged to listen to and comfort children and be respectful of the tragedy that occurred but also to maintain a sense of normalcy throughout the school day.
“Visibility and communication is essential in creating a sense of normalcy after a crisis,” Savage said.
And one of the best solutions to dealing with tragedy, according to Richards, is to show compassion.
“Now is probably the time to give that extra hug,” he said. “It is probably very, very needed.”
— Staff Writer Kim Smith Dedam contributed to this report.