Berkshire educators, officials reflect on what's changed since Sandy Hook

Sunday January 13, 2013

Last month's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., thrust schools and educators into the forefront of the nation's mind, and examined their roles in terms of security and leadership.

Wahconah Regional High School Assistant Principal Aaron Robb, who is also the parent of three young children, said he followed the news of the Dec. 14, 2012 incident that subsequent weekend. He would be in charge on Monday, since Principal James Conro would be away.

"As a former high school social studies teacher, I knew it was inevitable that the topic of the shooting would come up in class," said Robb.

"I came to the conclusion that our high school students had over two days to process some of the information (and misinformation) regarding the shooting. I felt the need to address the shooting over the announcements on Monday morning," he said.

Robb spent the weekend communicating with his fellow administrators, including the district superintendent, as well as Wahconah staff members.

On Monday morning, Dec. 17, after sending his own kids to elementary school, Robb went to Wahconah. It was a delicate time, being a week before the Christmas holiday. After giving a brief overview of the incident, the words of solace he had carefully composed were piped into the halls and classrooms of the high school:

"At this time, particularly at this time of year, it's important to focus on the bigger picture. The basic ties that bind all of us together are faith, hope, and trust. Violent acts such as the shooting in Newtown are designed to destroy our trust in one another We must strengthen our hope for a better tomorrow and we must continue to have faith in one another. The least we can do is commit ourselves to that."

Robb concluded his announcement by asking for a moment of silence, then let the high school students and staff get on with the school day.

For Farmington River Regional Elementary School Principal Mary Turo, returning to school on Monday took on a different tone. Just like her school, Sandy Hook, 68 miles south of Otis -- just over an hour's drive -- is a quiet place. After the shooting, Sandy Hook's teachers and staff were heralded as heroes for doing all they could to keep their pupils safe.

Being at an elementary school, Turo said staff and parents were very much affected by the news of the Sandy Hook shooting, and had developed a plan to only talk about it with the Farmington students if the students brought it up.

The Sunday after the incident, the superintendent contacted parents and staff and sent them materials advising adults how to talk with kids about violence.

"We did a lot of communication on email because we didn't want the kids to access it," Turo said.

The school, like all schools, had staff counselors on alert, ready to consult and console, be it students or adults.

"We were very ready to take care of the kids, but we were surprised that it didn't really come up," Turo said.

What has come up for Berkshire County schools, and likely with all schools in the U.S., is the concern with safety. Over the past month, local school leaders have revisited and reviewed their safety plans, practiced lockdown drills and worked with local law and emergency response officials to gauge their ability to handle a crisis like the one that occurred in Newtown, Conn.

"I think it's made everybody, once again, look a little closer at what they do, what their plans are," said Jon Lev, superintendent of the North Berkshire School Union. He's previously worked in Denver public schools, and remembers schools reacting similarly in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting massacre occurred in Colorado 13 years ago.

Lev himself has overseen some security upgrades among the three elementary schools in North Berkshire School Union. The Emma L. Miller Memorial Elementary School in Savoy, for example, now has a wireless doorbell and lock on the outside door near the principal's office.

At Clarksburg Elementary, a new intercom system is being installed. Since the towns in which the rural schools are located in don't have regular police departments, Lev said the union works closely with state Trooper Andrew Canata from the Cheshire barracks to run lockdown drills and maintain the schools' crisis teams.

Lev said that in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, he also sent a letter, "really just trying to reassure parents what we have in place and how important it is for us to protect their children and treat them as our own."

School leaders say there will continue to be indefinite changes among schools and national policies, with the lessons to learn from Sandy Hook, and even from Friday's non-fatal shooting in a Kern County, Calif., high school.

"I cannot predict the extent to which we will change, but we will," said Aaron Robb. "These tragedies always change us. There is no doubt this one will."

To reach Jenn Smith:,
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