Shootings in Connecticut: Hudson Valley educators review security, policies
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What if it happened here?
That's the question teachers, principals and parents asked themselves Friday as a steady stream of horrific images and heart-wrenching details emerged from a school in Newtown, Conn., where at least 26 people, including 20 children, were killed by gunman Adam Lanza who then took his own life.
Local educators tried to make sense of the tragedy, and many of them penned letters to parents as they reviewed their own protocols and security.
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At Port Chester Middle School, entrances are locked and visitors are required to sign in at the front office, Principal Patrick Swift said.
"Every period during the day we check the doors and we monitor anybody coming in," Swift said. "We like to think we do a pretty good job, but you can never be sure."
South Orangetown Superintendent Ken Mitchell pointed out that the gunman's mother was a teacher at the Newtown school, noting that such shootings are often personal. Mitchell would know -- in 2009, the father of a boy in the school district charged into Mitchell's office and confronted him with a gun. Mitchell was able to disarm the angry father, a former NYPD cop, but not before three shots were fired. The father was angry because his son had contracted the swine flu.
With that experience, Mitchell came closer to tragedy than most educators. South Orangeburg schools responded by tightening security protocols. Still, Mitchell said, no one can safeguard against every possibility.
"We've had training," he said, "but nothing that will ever prepare anyone for what happened there [in Connecticut]."
School officials in Scarsdale, Pleasantville, Ossining, North Salem and Goshen wrote letters to parents in the wake of Friday's mass shooting.
A letter from Scarsdale Superintendent Michael McGill told parents a school psychologist was available to speak to students, and said teachers were doing their best to reassure children.
"Ultimately, our best protection against the darkness is our own courage, our humanity and one another," McGill wrote.
A letter from Daniel Connor, Goshen's superintendent, detailed security measures -- at several of the district's schools, visitors must be buzzed in, then identified and escorted by a greeter. Connor also told parents he was in contact with local police.
In North Salem, Superintendent Kenneth Freeston put all schools in the district on lockdown for three hours as a precaution, and said he had received calls from several concerned parents.
Some parents wondered if security would have made a difference in Newtown. The shooter's mother worked at the school, and the shooter may have been a familiar face.
"I don't know how you can prevent things like this from happening," said Laura Mulcahy, 40, a Yonkers mom of two.
'HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR THAT?'
"How do you prepare for that? I don't know," said the mother of triplets, three boys in the fifth grade. "That's why I feel that the only way you can prepare for it is to really limit what people could carry around with them, as far as weapons."
Although most of the immediate responses in local school districts involved double-checking security procedures and physical safety, educators began considering the psychological impact on students. Sally Sharkey, the interim director of human resources at the North Rockland Central School District, said schools can no longer limit what kids hear while they're in a school building. Information "was coming in all day in dribs and drabs" as students scrolled news and social media feeds from their smartphones.
Teachers and staff were keeping a close eye on those students, Sharkey said, and had counselors ready to talk to the children in private to help them cope with the news.
That's exactly the advice dispensed by staff at Rachel's Challenge, a program created to "instill a culture of kindness" in schools. The program was named after Rachel Scott, a 17-year-old student who was killed in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
"The pain of their loss is indescribable, and we can only encourage them to lean on the support of their community and loved ones in dealing with this tragedy," Rachel's Challenge staff wrote in a statement.
Kim Mitchell, a 37-year-old mother from Nyack, said she doesn't believe children can be sheltered from violence, while 41-year-old Shibu Matheu of Nanuet said if she could, she'd home-school her three children.
"I feel that we are in a position where it's really difficult to raise kids nowadays," Matheu said.