Principal Wayne Kelley does not typically stand curbside as parents drop off their children at Garden Grove's Barker Elementary School. But on Monday, Kelley decided he needed to make his presence known.
As a morning parade of cars filed through Barker's parking lot, Kelley received nods and waves from jittery, appreciative parents, he said. Some even approached him to get personal reassurances it was safe to leave their children at Barker, he said.
"Parents seemed anxious; they said, 'Thank you for being out here, Mr. Kelley,'" he recalled. "We're certainly not walking around here in our little world today."
On the first full day of school since Friday's mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 elementary school children dead, local school administrators and teachers were grappling with how to reassure parents that schools remained safe – and how best to talk to impressionable youth about the massacre that shattered the Sandy Hook Elementary School community.
"For most of our educators, this unfortunately isn't a new subject and they've had some training about how to have age-appropriate discussions," said Alan Trudell, a spokesman for the Garden Grove Unified School District. "We also respect that some parents don't share this kind of story with their kids."
Local school districts reported they were working full steam ahead Monday to disseminate information to parents about how schools are rehearsing and fine-tuning emergency protocols. Districts also said they were working to explain to parents how they work with law enforcement to assess potential threats, and how they were evaluating what else, if anything, could be done to improve safety.
"Parents want to know that plans are in place, that we're not simply reacting to what happened in Connecticut," said Marcus Walton, a spokesman for Capistrano Unified, the county's second-largest school district. "We can't guarantee we can prevent a tragedy, but we do have procedures in place."
Capistrano officials used Friday's mass shooting to remind school administrators to be vigilant about following district safety protocols, including ensuring that every campus visitor signs in at the front office and that emergency drills take place as scheduled, Walton said.
Students and staff also were being reminded to immediately report anyone acting suspiciously, including through the district's anonymous text-a-tip line (unique to each school) developed in cooperation with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, Walton said.
Local school districts reported Monday that elementary school teachers were generally not initiating dialogue in their classrooms about the Connecticut shooting. Not only were many young children still unaware of Friday's massacre, but they also are not developmentally ready to comprehend and cope with the gory details, officials said.
"Individual teachers will deal with their individual students," said Greg Magnuson, superintendent for the Buena Park School District, which serves elementary and middle school students. "Young kids are very impressionable. If they ask us about it, we just want to reassure them we have safety procedures in place and that the tragedy in Newtown is a tragic, isolated incident."
HELPING CHILDREN COPE
In Santa Ana Unified, the county's largest school district with 57,300 students, officials activated a crisis team of psychologists and counselors to help students cope. The last time the district's crisis team was activated was 11 years ago, during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said program coordinator Ernie Proud, a district psychologist.
Even so, Proud said, there wasn't an immediate demand from middle and high schools for crisis services; meanwhile, all elementary students in Santa Ana were off Monday for a scheduled teacher training day.
Some districts reported that they were beefing up security around their campuses.
On Friday, Fullerton police visited each elementary school in the city to speak with school administrators and be on hand to address concerns and answer questions, said Fullerton City Manager Joe Felz.
And Monday morning, patrol cars were dispatched to all elementary schools in Fullerton to provide a visible security presence, Felz said.
Meanwhile, the Anaheim Union High School District said it had requested and would be receiving from local law enforcement increased visibility at all of its campuses. Also, every Anaheim Union campus was directed to review plans and procedures on campus safety, Superintendent Elizabeth Novack said in a letter to parents Monday.
In the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, officials scheduled a roundtable discussion for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to go over the district's safety efforts with police officials from Newport Beach and Costa Mesa.
"Due to the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the board feels it is critical to hold this conversation now," the district said in a statement. "We understand the notice is short, but feel it is necessary in light of the current circumstances."
Orange County school districts said they were not aware of parents' keeping their children home from school Monday in response to the shooting – a move that experts applauded as the correct decision.
SCHOOLS AS SUPPORT SYSTEMS
"Children should return to their regular schedules as soon as possible," said Arthur Cummings, coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education's Crisis Response Network. "Schools also have a wider range of resources to help children cope."
The Crisis Response Network is a 240-member network of counselors, administrators, psychologists, teachers and other school staff that works to identify students who might be struggling emotionally by listening and looking for those who appear distraught or overwhelmed, Cummings said.
These professionals are trained to work with families to ensure the child continues to receive proper care, he explained.
Back at Barker Elementary in Garden Grove, Kelley said he instructed all teachers Monday to lock their classroom doors all day – at least for the time being. The principal also said he's considering installing peepholes in every classroom door.
"We're just worried about someone in the area who might want to go out in a blaze of glory," Kelley said.
Even so, he acknowledged, "it's so fresh right now. I think once we all get on our winter break holiday next week, the anxiety level will decrease quite a bit."
–Register staff writer Lou Ponsi contributed to this report.
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