While many were horrified at the tragic killings yesterday at a Connecticut elementary school, local officials were also asking themselves: Could it happen here? Are we ready to stop it?
Local principals, superintendents and police chiefs say they have plans in place — but they are plans they hope they never have to use.
“This shows why we have a police officer in every school,” said Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni.
Like many school leaders yesterday, St. Augustine Elementary School Principal Paula O’Dea was stunned.
“I couldn’t believe this happened at an elementary school,” said O’Dea, who heads the parochial school in Andover. “It just brought tears to my eyes.”
In Methuen, and many other communities, each school is locked in the morning, and people cannot enter without being buzzed in. Each school has a police officer, and often practices drills for such emergency situations.
“Obviously there are no guarantees in life ever, but if there’s anything we can put in place, we have it in place,” Police Chief Joseph Solomon said.
Haverhill Superintendent James Scully said the schools need to be “extra vigilant.” Haverhill schools also buzzers, video cameras and other security devices.
However, no matter how vigilant the schools are, Scully pointed out, “You still have people that get in.”
In light of yesterday’s events, Haverhill police Deputy Chief Donald Thompson is reviewing security procedures. It’s “too soon to say,” he said, whether police and school officials will make any changes in security policies.
Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said that school security is “high on everyone’s list.”
“This is just unbelievable,” he said. “It’s just unfathomable what these families are going through.”
In Lawrence, Romero said, the schools and the police have a cooperative relationship. Many of the schools and police departments contacted for this story also talked about having good working relationships, which helps when they must plan for the unthinkable.
“With incidents happening like Columbine, a lot of police departments want to make sure that plans are in place,” Romero said. “You hope that you never have to implement something like this, (but) we do have plans and we are working on updating them.”
While the focus was on public schools yesterday, even private and parochial schools felt stunned by the news and worked to assure students, parents and faculty that safety measures were in place.
“I’ve gotten some phone calls from parents who wonder if we practice — and we do — drills for situations like this,” said Pike Head of School John “Muddy” Waters.
Many local schools struggled about whether or not to tell students about the tragedy. In the end, Pike and St. Augustine, both being private schools with elementary school-aged children, chose not to tell their students.
“We want the parents to be able to tell the children when they get home because, hearing news like that, they’re better off being with their parents,” O’Dea said.
An email was sent out to St. Augustine faculty shortly after the school learned about the shooting.
“We made an announcement for all faculty to check their emails,” O’Dea said.
The message was to keep their children safe.
“We wanted to make sure all the faculty are vigilant and do their bus duties, and their other duties to let parents know that we’re keeping them safe,” O’Dea said.
Central to Waters’ concerns was how students would make sense of the tragedy, or more specifically how they would fail to.
“We have policies, and we all know why we’re doing this, but we don’t tell that to the children,” Waters said. “We can think about it more and we can go places their young minds won’t.”
Also to be considered is how students will use the information they’re given about the incident.
“We want to be supportive of their kids,” Waters said, “but we don’t want to teach them that they have to look over their shoulders every day of their life, else something might happen.”
At St. Augustine Elementary School, a school counselor who normally doesn’t start her week until Tuesday was going to be at the school as children arrived Monday “in case any students need any assurance.”
The school, which handles religious education for the nearby St. Augustine Parish, will dedicate some time aside to pray for the victims Monday morning during their regular morning prayer.
Staff writers Paul Tennant, Mark Vogler, Dustin Lucca and Douglas Moser contributed to this report.