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Brady: Our district is a safe place to be

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POTSDAM - Adam Lanza’s murderous rampage on Friday not only claimed the lives of 20 young children in Newtown, Conn., it also claimed the innocence of millions of other students and parents across the nation.

“We could understand the high schools and maybe the middle schools, but we always thought the elementary schools were safe,” said Hospice & Palliative Care of St. Lawrence Valley Director of Family Services Mary Jones said at a parents’ meeting held Monday evening by the Potsdam Central School District.

She suggested the age of the victims makes Friday’s shooting harder to deal with than previous school shootings.

Ms. Jones said she can understand the fear parents have in light of Friday’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, and she said that is something children can pick up on.

“What we can’t show them is our fear,” she said. “We may think they’re watching Nickelodeon or SpongeBob, but their radar is up and they’re listening to what you’re saying.”

While Ms. Jones said it is OK to be afraid, she noted the more your children think you’re affected by incidents like this, the more affected they’ll likely be.

“You might be fearful, but you have to put on a good game face,” she said. “If you have the TV on, put on Rudolph. You have to take a break from this. All it’s going to do is put you down.”

Ms. Jones said listening to your children is the best approach..

“Take the time to listen to what they’re saying,” she said. “Every child is going to react differently.”

If you want to be the one to initiate the conversation with your children, she recommended asking, “What did you talk about at school today?” “I think that’s a great question to ask,” she said.

And if your children don’t want to talk to you, that’s OK said Hospice Bereavement Counselor Kay DePerno, who added children may not want to talk to their parents because they don’t want to hurt them or cause them any pain.

“As a parent it’s painful to hear our children cry, You’re going to want to fix it, but you can’t,” Ms. DePerno said. “They do talk, but they might not talk to you because they don’t want to see you hurt.”

Ms. DePerno recalled working in the district last year with a group of students who were close to Garrett Phillips, a 12-year-old student at AA Kingston Middle School, who was murdered.

She said can remember being told they probably wouldn’t talk.

“They talked,” she said, adding many of the students told her they enjoyed talking to her because she was listening and wasn’t “trying to fix them.”

Middle school Principal Jamie Cruikshank said he heard Garrett’s name several times on Monday, and one mother at the meeting said the shooting in Connecticut brought feelings back to the surface for her son, who was a close friend of Garrett’s.

“He said, ‘I know this is bigger than Garrett, but to me it’s not,’” she recalled him saying as they talked about Friday’s events.

Another parent at the meeting said all she could think about while she was at work was whether or not her was son safe while in school on Monday.

“All I thought about all day was, ‘My son is here (at school). Is he OK?” Nancy Barley said, echoing an emotion shared by many parents Monday. “He’s in kindergarten. He’s six years old. He’s that age.”

Safety was also something addressed at the meeting by Superintendent Patrick H. Brady, as well as the district’s building principals and Potsdam Village Police Juvenile Aid Officer Matthew Seymour.

“Your children are safe. As horrible as this incident was, very few people die in this manner,” Ptl. Seymour said. “It’s hard to digest that in the 24/7 news cycle.”

Should such an incident ever happen at anyone of the district’s schools, Ptl. Seymour said police would be on the scene within seconds, not minutes, noting response time to the district would like range from 30 second to two minutes. “And that’s if we’re on the other side of the village,” he said, referring to the longer of the two response times.

Elementary school Principal Larry B. Jenne, who also chairs the district’s safety committee, said the elementary school actually held a lockdown drill on Thursday, the day before the shooting.

“The whole purpose of lockdown is to limit a person’s access,” Ptl. Seymour said, noting even if someone was to get into the building they would have to take the time to break down classroom doors before having any access to students.

Ptl. Seymour noted following the Columbine school shooting in 1999 many studies have been done.

“In all but two incidents, the shooter either surrendered, or more often than not, took their own life as soon as they encountered any kind of resistance,” he said, noting that resistance could come from either law enforcement or school officials.

In fact it is now being reported that the Newtown shooter took his own life when he heard sirens heading to the scene.

“They’re going to hear us coming,” Ptl. Seymour said.

The shooting in Connecticut though also varied greatly from other shootings as the shooter wasn’t a student at the school.

“It’s very hard to stop those people before hand, because you don’t know,” he said, adding the police do have a presence in area of the schools each day, something that could go long ways in preventing a shooting like that from happening in Potsdam.

“If you’re looking to find a target and you see a patrol car parked in front of the school on a near daily basis, the odds are you’ll go some place else.”

Ptl. Seymour said the safety of students in the district is something he takes very seriously.

“I have two daughters in this school,” he said. “I promise you no one takes this more seriously than I do.”

As for the school’s response to Friday’s events, Mr. Jenne said starting Monday school officials had taken additional security measures.“Our school is safe. It’s probably one of the safest places for kids to be,” he said. “When these kids walk in the building, they are like our kids.”

He also added people must be “buzzed in” to both the elementary and high schools, while people entering the middle school walk right into the building’s office.

“If someone wanted to get in they would have to fight my secretary,” said Middle School Principal Jamie Cruikshank, adding that he’s expecting security upgrades similar to what’s in place in the other buildings in the near future.

“Throughout the years we have increased security in the various buildings,” he said. “Now it’s the middle school’s turn.”

In an interview prior to Monday night’s meeting, Mr. Brady said the incident was not addressed in school on Friday.

“We were still receiving information on Friday,” he said, adding the district’s administrators met over the weekend to devise a plan to address the tragedy on Monday.

“One of the things is when we talk to students, it’s important to provide them with accurate and honest information,” he said.

Faculty meetings were held prior to the start of school on Monday with students in the middle and high school being read a statement before their day began. At the elementary level, Mr. Jenne said students were provided an opportunity to ask questions.

“The overall message was that this was a terrible tragedy and we are all mourning the loss of students and staff from Sandy Hook. We wanted to assure our students the district is a safe place for them to be and that our administrators and staff continue to review our policies and procedures to enhance that safety,” Mr. Brady said. “We also wanted them to know if any of the students were having a difficult time we had counselors and teachers available for them to talk to.”

At the close of the meeting at least some of the attendees were more at ease than they were heading into the day.

“I’m more at peace now than I was earlier,” Sheena Deon said.

Ms. Jones also provided parents in attendance at the meeting with links to additional resources. Some of those links are posted below:

On The Web:

http://www.childrengrieve.org/senseless-shootings-how-talk-your-children

http://blog.hospicefoundation.org/2012/12/talking-to-children-after-public-tragedy.html

http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/talkingviolence.pdf

http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/resources_for_families/talking_to_children_about_community_violence

http://www.pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/news/

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