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‘Anxious’ mood felt in local schools
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Mourners leave the funeral service of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim, Jack Pinto, 6, on Monday in Newtown, Conn. Pinto was killed when a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children.(AP)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The superintendents of the Henry County and Martinsville school divisions respectively described the mood in their schools Monday as “somber” and “sad” three days after the Connecticut school shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead.

Superintendent Jared Cotton of the Henry County school division said people are questioning what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and why.

“There was a very high sense of alert even though the day ran smoothly (on Monday),” Cotton said. He added, “People are on high alert and anxious about the events of Friday.”

School principals are doing “remarkable” jobs of reassuring about safety practices and procedures in place, he said.

Cotton and Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said the sheriff’s office increased officer patrols of schools Monday. Cotton said he expects that will continue the rest of this week and perhaps the week after winter break. Families should not be alarmed by the increase in officer patrols, Cotton added. Perry said some people called school officials out of concern Monday when they saw more sheriff’s patrols before they realized it was a preventive measure.

Cotton said the school division emphasizes school safety and will be working with the sheriff’s office to determine if any of the school division’s safety procedures and practices need to be adjusted as more is learned about the Sandy Hook incident.

In a previous interview with the Bulletin, Cotton said the division has a system-wide safety committee and a grant has helped improve security. This year, the division implemented mandatory lock-down drills. Perry and his officers have attended the drills and given helpful feedback. Table-top drills often include surprises so the staff learns problem solving, Cotton said.

The state plans to review school policies and procedures, as well as funding and resource challenges to ensure the safety of students and educators in their classrooms, it was reported Monday.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said it is the duty of state and local government to do everything possible to ensure young people from kindergarten through college are able to “learn and thrive in a safe and secure environment.”

McDonnell said he had asked Secretary of Education Laura Fornash and Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker to review recently submitted school safety audits with school superintendents. They will identify any changes in procedures or additional resources needed in light of the Sandy Hook shootings.

McDonnell also created a task force of educators, public safety exports, local leaders and legislators to review school safety. Officials said the goal of the task force is to identify any needed funding or legislative changes that could be brought before the General Assembly before its veto session in March.

McDonnell also announced a new position within the state Department of Criminal Justice Services dedicated to issues associated with school and campus safety. The position originated as a recommendation from the Governor’s Domestic Violence Prevention and Response Advisory Board. It will be funded using existing resources, officials said.

Perry said of the Sandy Hook shootings, “We just pray that this never happens here.” But he urges students, their families and the public to notify the sheriff’s office if they see anything suspicious. “If anyone hears a person speaking out in anger or emotion, threatening this type of action, you have to take it seriously. Don’t just think they will cool off.”

Pam Heath, superintendent of the Martinsville school division, said, “School went well today.” But she added, “Everyone’s awareness was heightened.” The Sandy Hook incident makes people feel vulnerable, she said.

Several parents sent emails over the weekend. A few students understandably were upset, had concerns and wanted assurances that their local schools are safe places to be, Heath said.

Guidance counselors and school psychologists were on hand Monday to talk with students, answer questions and address their concerns in age-appropriate ways, Heath said.

The Sandy Hook incident “kind of makes you stop and say, ‘Is there anything (more) we can be doing?” Heath said. There is no way to 100 percent guarantee anything, but safety is the division’s No. 1 priority, she said. “We can’t accomplish anything else without a safe environment.”

She said the division has tried to be very proactive in addressing school safety and constantly monitors safety procedures. “We’re so aware of this. We really stay on top of it all the time,” she said.

“We have good procedures in place,” she said.

She said the division and the Martinsville Police Department “partner very well together on school safety.”

She also said the school safety coordinator, T.J. Slaughter, does an excellent job.

Heath urges students, parents and community members to use Safeshare to anonymously report any safety concerns they have. According to a newsletter on the school division’s website, there are three ways to report these issues:

• Fill out an anonymous form at www.martinsville.k12.va.us — click “Safeshare” on the right side of the page;

• Look up Safeshare 276 on Facebook;

• Or email safeshare276@gmail.com.

Both Cotton and Heath said their school divisions are sending communications to parents reassuring them about school safety in light of the Sandy Hook incident. Heath said the Martinsville division’s letter to parents will contain, among other things, tips on what to tell their children if they have questions over the holidays — in order to help ease anxiety and not make things worse. “Many times children process things for a while and ask questions later,” Heath said.

Roger Morris, superintendent of Patrick County Schools, reported no problems at schools Monday stemming from the Sandy Hook incident.

Referring to the governor’s request for school divisions to review safety audits, “We’re already doing that. We had already convened safety teams.”

 

 
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