“I couldn’t believe it – I still can’t,” said Marina, her eyes filling with tears. “When I heard later about the teacher who hid her students in the closet and then sacrificed herself for them, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard of, and the saddest.”
Marina’s not alone. As details of last week’s horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School continue to emerge and the stories of heroism, courage and compassion multiply, residents, students and school officials here – and around the world – struggle to make sense of a senseless tragedy.
“How can you understand something like this?” asked Liberty High student Stephanye Frias. “It’s horrible; it’s beyond horrible. I have a brother in fourth grade and he was very startled by the news. My mom told him that he’s safe at home and at school but it’s still hard to explain. Very hard.”
In the wake of the shootings, local police departments and school administrators have met to review, rehearse and re-evaluate their emergency plans – strategies already in place at all area school districts and law enforcement organizations.
“We have trained in the past at our high school and other schools,” said Oakley Chief of Police Bani Kollo. “Prior to the event we had a few weeks ago (Freedom High went into lockdown over false threats made against the campus), the Student Resource Officer for Freedom was working on some training that would encompass all our schools to include physical familiarization. The familiarization of all school grounds is important, as it expedites a response to engage an active shooter scenario.”
The Brentwood Police Department also released a statement this week reiterating the city’s commitment to ensuring the safety and security of students throughout the district.
“The horrific tragedy in Connecticut has reminded everyone of the need to ensure the safety of our children,” read the press release. “We have coordinated plans in place to ensure school staff, police, fire and medical personnel respond rapidly and efficiently to any emergency that occurs at our schools.”
Liberty Union High School District Superintendent Eric Volta plans to meet with local law enforcement agencies to review their emergency plans. “Unfortunately we have had some experience with lockdowns in the district, and as far as being prepared for an emergency, I would say we are,” said Volta.
For others, the Sandy Hook shootings have created the opportunity to reopen the debate on gun control and how society deals with the mentally ill.
“Unfortunately as a society we have a history of violence and yet there have always been two places where we have been safe: church and school,” said Brentwood City Councilman and former LUHSD principal Gene Clare. “But now those places have been violated and it’s time to reach out and address the multiple issues regarding gun control and mental health.”
Despite the horrors of past shootings including Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Newtown, Liberty senior Jaylene Jamili still considers her campus a secure place. “I feel safe, I do,” said Jaylene, who was in class when she heard the news. “I know my school is a safe place to be, even after what has happened.”
Oakley Union Elementary School District Superintendent Rick Rogers hopes educators, parents and support teams will help students and children continue to feel safe.
Byron Union School Superintendent Ken Jacopetti reported that his district has responded to the tragedy in a variety of ways. “All of our support staff and counselors are wrapping around the kids the best we can,” said Jacopetti. “It’s been such an emotionally stressful thing – they were just babies. As an educator, teacher and parent, it really hits you hard. It’s a struggle.”
The Knightsen School District is responding in kind, offering a support system to the parents and children while also reviewing its emergency plans. “In light of this tragedy we will once again take a look at the plan and review our school site for any necessary security upgrades, as well as review policies regarding student safety,” wrote Knightsen Superintendent Theresa Estrada in a letter to families this week.
And for the children, those least likely to understand yet with the potential to be most affected by the news from Connecticut, the National PTA has reached out with Snowflakes for Sandy Hook. When school resumes for Sandy Hook after the Christmas break, it will do so in a new building just a few miles from Newtown. PTA volunteers around the nation are collecting handmade snowflakes to be hung throughout the new school as a way to welcome back the children.
“I wrote a newsletter to the parents in my class beforehand so they would know what I was doing,” said Rochelle Gardiner, a teacher at Vintage Parkway Elementary School in Oakley. “I explained to the kids that some students were moving into a new school with no decorations, so we’re going to help them out.”
As the nation continues to mourn Sandy Hook’s loss, students such as Jaylene – who hopes to be a teacher one day – remain in awe of the heroic educators who saved their students. “The teachers were all so brave and it’s all so sad,” said Jaylene. “It’s especially hard for people like me who want to be a teacher someday to see those pictures. As a teacher you want to keep your children safe, you want them to be OK, and it’s heartbreaking to know that you can’t always do that.”
Those interested in participating in the Snowflakes for Sandy Hook project are invited to send their contributions by Jan. 12 to the Sandy Hook PTA, care of Bonny Marsicano, 22 Pine Tree Hill Road Newtown, CT 06470.