Carlton County schools react to shootings in ConnecticutEsko School Superintendent Aaron Fischer said he lives with the specter of school violence on a daily basis. “When events such as last week’s mass shootings in Connecticut happen, people are obviously concerned about it,” he said, “but it’s one of my concerns all the time, every single day.”
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Esko School Superintendent Aaron Fischer said he lives with the specter of school violence on a daily basis.
“When events such as last week’s mass shootings in Connecticut happen, people are obviously concerned about it,” he said, “but it’s one of my concerns all the time, every single day.”
Fischer and school superintendents throughout the county reacted quickly and comprehensively to news of last Friday’s shooting incident at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. All held meetings with teachers and staff first thing Monday morning, and many sent out messages to parents or posted them on the school’s website or Facebook page outlining the district’s policies , approach and resources.
“The first thing we wanted to do was to make sure students had as typical a day as we could provide,” said Fischer.
He said the high school observed a moment of silence in memory of the shooting victims. Teachers at both the high school and elementary levels were instructed to adopt the philosophy of talking about the shooting incident as a class if multiple students were showing an interest in it. If individual students were demonstrating signs of stress or anxiety, they were to be referred to trained counselors.
“We wanted to wait and see if students brought it up first before we decided how best to proceed,” said Fischer.
He reported that by and large, parents of elementary students exhibited more concerns than the students themselves. At the high school, the reverse proved to be true.
Fischer said the district also took the opportunity to once again review its crisis plan, which basically involves keeping all doors locked except the main entrances, requiring all visitors check in at the office, enforcing diligence on behalf of staff and teachers in being aware of what’s going on in their surroundings, and practicing lockdown protocols at least five times a year.
Lockdown drills, he said, include making an announcement over the public address system that alerts teachers to follow procedures according to whether the incident in question is indoors or out; locking the doors to the classrooms; instructions telling students in the commons area where to go; and covering the classroom windows to restrict visibility.
Barnum Elementary Principal Tom Cawcutt said he told teachers on Monday morning to reassure students that their school is a safe and secure and explain why that is so.
“We wanted to set the tone at the beginning of the day,” said Cawcutt, “and dispel any rumors in order to diminish the impact of the incident.”
He also suggested that teachers keep any conversations about the Connecticut shooting incident to an “age appropriate level” and let their emotions determine the level of the discussions.
“There’s no use in going over all of the facts and details if they add to the students’ concerns and fears,” said Cawcutt. “Some of them weren’t even aware of the incident – and some of them knew too much.”
Cawcutt said school staff members feel confident that everything that can be done to assure the school’s security is currently being done. In the morning, the school’s doors lock automatically and all visitors must go through the school office. Staff review evacuation procedures periodically for all types of emergencies, and lockdown drills are rehearsed throughout the school year.
Barnum Superintendent Dave Bottom added there was a law enforcement officer on hand at the school on Monday “to reassure students, parents and staff that schools are a safe place to be.”
Carlton Superintendent Peter Haapala said the school is actively reviewing its crisis plans with staff and discussing how they would have responded if they had been in the same shoes as the staff at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“Hopefully we won’t ever have that sort of thing happen here,” said Haapala.
He, too, met with staff on Monday morning and he said there was a law enforcement officer present in both of the district buildings to provide extra assurance to students, teachers and parents.
Haapala said a long-time area of concern for the district is the fact that the main office at South Terrace Elementary School is not located at the front entrance to the school. He said though it would be expensive to relocate the office and replace a classroom in that area, the district is examining the formal drawings put together a number of years ago by the building’s architect to see if there was an alternative plan set forth at that time for office space at the front of the school. He expressed the hope that in the aftermath of the school incident in Connecticut and others like it, the government may soon consider helping to fund such measures to ensure the security of the nation’s schools.
Moose Lake Superintendent Bob Indihar indicated that the social studies teachers discussed the issue of the school shooting incident with each of the high school grades as a current issues topic. The elementary school had discussions about it at appropriate grade levels, and a message to parents was posted on the school’s website listing resources for those who may be looking for some direction in how to help their child cope with news of the shootings.
“Our staff brought up the concern of many of our doors not being locked during the day,” admitted Indihar. “We are addressing that issue.”
Cloquet School Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said the district not only does routine emergency drills but works with the community’s first responders to run the drills with their participation.
“This not only has helped to coordinate and practice our emergency responses,” Scarbrough said, “but it is an outstanding way to have our community experts give us good suggestions as to how we can improve our procedures. The best thing we have going for us is that we have outstanding and very quick first responders, and we cannot overstate the professionalism and effectiveness of our law enforcement, fire and emergency rescue in our city and county.”
Scarbrough said other tools the district engages in crisis situations include a mass messaging service, local media help, security cameras and alarm systems.
“Students and adults are also encouraged to feel comfortable letting school officials know if they think we may have a risky situation developing,” added Scarbrough. “We have teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, nurses, police liaisons and other who can talk to or make referrals for students who feel at risk or need physical, social or emotional support.”
The law enforcement support in the district is not only intentional but ongoing.
Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande said he encourages all officers on duty to patrol the areas of the two elementary schools, the middle school, the high school and the alternative education program before and after school and over the noon hour.
“We’ve encouraged our officers for years to be proactive when it comes to school safety,” said Lamirande, “and all of them are trained in the schools’ emergency plans. Barring any outside calls, we’re there as much as we can.”
He said everyone understands the urgency of school security.
“We haven’t gone through a single year in the 10 years I’ve been here that we haven’t had a bomb threat or a threatening message written on a wall, or something similar in our schools.”
Likewise, Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake said her department has a presence at county schools in the mornings and after school as much as possible.
“Our officers are not assigned to do it because we don’t have enough manpower to be at all of them all the time,” said Lake, “but we are at as many of them as we can on a rotating basis.”
She said Monday morning was the exception, and the department made certain that every school had a law enforcement presence.
“We wanted to do that, knowing how it might affect students to walk through the doors of their school on Monday morning following the incomprehensible incident in Connecticut,” said Lake.
Lamirande admitted that in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings – where security measures were in place and teachers did all the right things – the current school security plans will continue to fall under close scrutiny,
“I’m beginning to wonder if they’re enough,” he said.