Massacre jitters felt here, too

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Greater police presence at schools

By Cindy Simpson

School safety is at the forefront after a tragic school shooting in Connecticut last week took the lives of 20 children and six educators.
This week Roane County Schools took steps to reassure families and children by coordinating with local law enforcement to have officers at every school when students walked through the doors Monday morning.
Every community has a school resource officer shared between the high school, elementary and middle schools.
However, for at least the remainder of this week, a greater police presence will be seen.
“The first thing we did was in cooperation with the sheriff’s department and city police departments — we have officers at our schools right now continuously so they were there to greet our students this morning to make sure they felt safe this morning,” Gary Aytes, Roane County director of schools, said Monday.
A bigger police presence is something many feel would hamper tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.,  from happening.
“I’m very grateful we have a Harriman officer assigned to us all week. This morning we had a sheriff’s officer here, Harriman officer here and our sheriff (Jack Stockton) even came,” said Bowers Elementary Principal Candace Lett.
“I’m very hopeful this may be the one event that puts a police officer in every school,” Lett added.

Harriman Police Chief Randy Heidle, who has two sons in Kingston schools, said he believes it’s one of the quickest steps that can be taken to make schools safer.
“Police presence is huge. Just having a police car at the school I think will make a difference. I think that could be done quickly,” Heidle said.
Heidle said his department had just done a school-intruder drill last week — before the Connecticut shooting.
“I feel very confident my department is ready for a situation like that. We’ve been training for it if it ever happens, but I don’t want it to happen,” Heidle said.
Schools also held a moment of silence to reflect on the tragedy. They also reviewed safety procedures.
“We just feel blessed that this hasn’t happened here and hope we can protect our students. That is always our number one goal,” Aytes said.
Lett said her staff is trying not to focus on the shootings, but they did address it briefly Monday morning.
“We had a moment of silence, and I talked to the kids a little bit about it. I talked to them over the intercom,” Lett said. “I think they know that something bad happened and, depending on the age, they process it differently.”
The American Psychological Association and National Association of School Psychologists both have details about how to manage distress and talk to youth about the event in Connecticut, which inundates the news.
The NASP stresses reassuring children they are safe, emphasizing schools are safe.
It also said to make time to talk and keep explanations developmentally appropriate, as well as review safety procedures, observe children’s emotional states, limit television viewing of the event and maintain a normal routine.
Kingston Elementary School Principal Shelia Sitzlar said she was touched by the outpouring of praise for the safety procedures the school has in place.
“I have had many parents come in today and thank me for them more than ever before. They understand that we do a lot of things that inconvenience the parents a little, but keep the children safe,” Sitzlar said.

Bowers Elementary sent a letter home with parents addressing the tragedy and what the school is doing to keep students safe.
Parental input was encouraged as well as details about the current school emergency preparedness and safety policies.
Lett said school officials reviewed some safety aspects with students.
“I reminded children today we don’t open doors for anyone. Let adults do that,” Lett said.
School officials are working hard to keep students safe, but acknowledge today’s world is a dangerous place.
“You cannot say I promise you will always be safe, but you can say we’ll always do what we can to keep you safe,” Lett said.
“We feel we have a safe environment, but nobody really knows. You just wonder why are people that sick they do something like that,” said Alan Reed, Rockwood principal.
Lett and others said it has been hard for staff to understand how someone could hurt such young children.
“They are babies,” Lett said.
Aytes learned about the shooting Friday when speaking at a Civitan meeting about the school system’s five-year plan, which includes a number of safety measures.
A person in the audience received a text about the shooting.
Part of the school system’s five-year plan is to have all the schools with secure entry as well as updated digital security surveillance.

Some schools have secure entry where only the front door is open and student hallways and offices are locked.
Bowers Elementary, for example, which got a lot of its security features during school construction in the last few years, has every door locked except the front, which opens into a waiting area in front of the office.
Entry into the offices or hallways requires a badge. Lett said those badges don’t just note who comes in but when.
 Aytes said all schools have security cameras, but upgrading the remainder of those with the newer technology would cost about $1 million.
“We keep hoping the state or federal government will come through with the funds to help with that sort of thing,” Aytes said.
Individual schools are reviewing their safety plans, and Aytes will be meeting with the Roane County Office of Emergency Management, the Roane County School Board safety committee and others to review the system’s safety plan.
The schools do a number of drills regularly, including one for an intruder.
“We do them at least twice a year. It is called a lockdown,” Aytes said. “We try to be very diligent in our preparedness, and you hope nothing ever happens,” Aytes said.