By Peter Becker
The tragedy at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 14th- where 20 children and six adults were slain by a gunman- deeply impacted the Nation. Beside the affect on any family with kids, perhaps nowhere would the news hit harder than at schools far and wide. Wallenpaupack Area School District was no exception, a rural school which has in common with Newtown, that they would never dream such a crisis would ever happen.
Like school districts nationwide, however, mass violence at schools has prompted emergency action plans. They drill, they try to plan for every contingency, they methodically consult with outside agencies. As Wallenpaupack Superintendent Michael Silsby and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Joann Hudak pointed out, how do you plan for everything and anything?
Sitting down to discuss the local impact five days after the massacre, Silsby noted that their counterparts in Newtown did everything right. They had an emergency action plan that had been well rehearsed. This saved lives. Teachers courageously barricaded themselves with their kids and did what they could to keep them safe, quiet and calm. Law enforcement rapidly descended on scene, again likely saving more lives as the intruder abruptly ended his own life when confronted by the storm of police.
Actions of the administrators and teachers at Newton showed themselves as heroes, Silsby stated.
The present school emergency action plan will be reviewed again, and with the direction of the School Board, examine possible ways to improve it. Silsby said if needed they could consider metal detectors and armed or unarmed guards, for example.
Letter to parents
In a letter sent to parents and guardians, dated Dec. 18, Silsby states in part, "All of us who work in education have broken hearts and are haunted by the tragedy at Newtown Public School District... we struggle to find words to express our emotions and explain how that could have happened.
"Not all tragedies can be prevented but schools and districts need to be ready to handle crises, large and small, to keep our children and staff out of harm's way and ready to learn, and to recover from such tragedies should they occur. Wallenpaupack Area School District strives to provide a safe environment for our students Each of our schools has developed a crisis response plans that is reviewed yearly by local law enforcement agencies and emergency response organizations."
Parents were directed to the school web site (www.wallenpaupack.org) where they can review the plan that is in place. A question and answer format responds to concerns about safety and security at Wallenpaupack.
Information and links are provided to help answer questions and concerns from children. School officials advise:
• Provide a clear and straight-forward explanation of the event
• Return to normalcy and routine as best as possible
• Let children know it is all right to feel upset or angry
• Be a good listener and observer
• Focus on resiliency as well as the compassion of others.
On Friday, the day of the shooting, administrators at Wallenpaupack began consulting with one another and through the weekend set up meetings in each school with their principals, faculty and other staff. These were held at 7:30 a.m., prior to arrival of the students.
Administrators reviewed the emergency action plan with the faculty, and direction was given how to talk with the children about the tragedy.
Silsby stated that the hope was that over the weekend, parents would have begun the conversation with their own children. By the time Monday came, the District sought to convey a feeling of normalcy and routine. Crisis counselors were available, to assist both teachers and students.
State Police met elementary students at the doors with friendly greetings. State Police were also stationed in parking lots. The idea, Hudak stated, was to offer a sense of security and comfort in this harrowing time.
Hudak noted that their action plan has been in place five years. The plans covers the range, from storms to shooters. Mass casualty exercises have been held with local fire, ambulance and police organizations. The plan is reviewed yearly by local Emergency Management officials.
Recently, local fire companies were given a tour to see the new energy system upgrade and the changes this brought. The local State Police recently sent new personnel to tour the schools.
Some parents contacted the District about school safety. Hudak said the crises offered an opportunity to explain what was already in place. Some parents did not know there was a plan, and expressed relief.
Improving the odds
Suggestions from parents are always welcome. Silsby said that the District is open to how they could improve the plan. The realization exists, however, that there is never a guarantee, but the District seeks to make the best odds that they will be safe.
Meanwhile, the School District fosters a "culture of telling," Hudak said, which encourages students to report issues and concerns. Students are encouraged to trust their administrators, and come forward with information they may need to know.
School officials try to do their best to recognize students who may need counsel or other help, Hudak said. An irony, Silsby pointed out, us that the student that may cause trouble is not always who one might suspect. Teachers are taught to watch for signs, such as changes in a student's personality or sudden drop in grades.
Parents become involved, and students may be referred to an appropriate social program.
Hudak reflected about the changes in society. What used to be taught at home, was then reinforced at school. Today, there are so many outside influences shaping a student apart from their parents or schools. Growth in electronic social media and the Internet are big factors.
Seeking to calm the fears of families in the aftermath of this latest school tragedy, Silsby noted that the nation was traumatized. Some families become fearful of sending their kids back to any school. This is understandable, he explained, realizing that children are the parents' "most precious commodity."