STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
Schools across Southern Indiana — like the rest of the public — were moved by hearing of the tragic loss of life following a Friday shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn, that killed 26 people, including 20 children.
The killer, armed with two handguns, committed suicide and another person was found dead at a second scene, bringing the toll to 28, authorities said.
Locally, the response in terms of communicating with students about the tragedy was dependent on age.
Chris Ralston, Greater Clark County Schools Safety Specialist, said when incidents like the shooting in Connecticut occur, the school corporation will “communicate to the students through the teacher.”
He added that it is dependent upon the grade level of the children as to whether or not incidents like school shootings are discussed. Ralston said at the high school level talk, teachers will talk to the students a little bit more. For elementary school ages, it is common for the teachers to allow parents the chance to talk to their kids about such incidents.
In an age of technology and smartphones, he added that often the high school students will know as much, or more than the teachers and administrators through things like text alerts.
Monty Schneider, superintendent at West Clark Community Schools, agreed that school children often find out through social media, while a different response is offered for elementary school children.
In response to the Connecticut school shooting, Silver Creek Elementary School Principal David E. Losey sent a letter to the students’ parents.
In part, the letter read, “our safety plan calls for complete lockdown in any shooter emergency. We would work with the Sellersburg Police and the Indiana State Police to move from the ‘lockdown’ school to a separate safe location. If ... students and staff move to either emergency relocation site, parents will be reunited with their child or children at the relocation site. Parents will have to provide a picture identification at the relocation desk.”
Ralston said the school corporation has a crisis response plan. Within each building, there is also a plan for that specific school.
“We do have a comprehensive plan,” he said. “In Indiana, all schools are required to have a comprehensive safety program.”
Schneider said each of the schools in the West Clark district has their own emergency preparedness plan. He said each school has a committee that meets to develop a plan specific to that school, which also falls within state guidelines. The safety plans are updated each year and reviewed after events like the tornado that struck Henryville High School last March.
“We make safety improvements all the time to try and make things safer,” Schneider said. “There’s nothing more important to anybody than their kids. I understand the concern parents have for their kids.”
An extensive safety plan provided by West Clark included a host of scenarios and their appropriate responses, including instances where weapons may be brought to a school, bomb threats or natural disasters.
The plan is developed along with local public safety officials and within 60 days of the beginning of the school year, the superintendent reviews and revises the plan, if necessary. Safety measures, which have also increased over time are included in the plan. Among the security measures are limiting public entrances to the front office, locking all other doors, requiring ID badges to be worn at all times along with security cameras throughout the schools.
For school districts like Greater Clark, the tragedy in Connecticut will also inform them.
Ralston said he’ll be watching for details about how the Sandy Hook Elementary School handled the situation, then review its own policies.
“We can go back and look how they responded and look at our policy here that we can tweak,” he said.
New Albany-Floyd County and Clarksville schools were contacted for this story, but did not provide comment by press time.
The Connecticut attack, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people dead in 2007.
Panicked parents raced to Sandy Hook Elementary School, about 60 miles northeast of New York City, looking for their children. Students were told to close their eyes by police as they were led from the building.
Schoolchildren — some crying, others looking frightened — were escorted through a parking lot in a line, hands on each other’s shoulders.
“Our hearts are broken today,” a tearful President Barack Obama, struggling to maintain composure, said at the White House. He called for “meaningful action” to prevent such shootings.
Youngsters and their parents described teachers locking doors and ordering the children to huddle in the corner or hide in closets when shots echoed through the building. Authorities said the shootings took place in two rooms, but they gave no details on exactly how they unfolded.
A law enforcement official identified the gunman as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, the son of a teacher. A second law enforcement official said his mother, Nancy Lanza, was presumed dead.
Adam Lanza’s older brother, 24-year-old Ryan, of Hoboken, N.J., was being questioned, the first official said. Earlier, a law enforcement official mistakenly identified Ryan as the shooter.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record about the unfolding investigation.
The gunman drove to the school in his mother’s car, the second official said. Three guns were found — a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, inside the school, and a .223-caliber rifle in the back of a car.
Lanza’s girlfriend and another friend were missing in New Jersey, the official also said.
Robert Licata said his 6-year-old son was in class when the gunman burst in and shot the teacher.
“That’s when my son grabbed a bunch of his friends and ran out the door,” he said. “He was very brave. He waited for his friends.”
He said the shooter didn’t utter a word.
Stephen Delgiadice said his 8-year-old daughter was in the school and heard two big bangs. Teachers told her to get in a corner, he said.
“It’s alarming, especially in Newtown, Conn., which we always thought was the safest place in America,” he said. His daughter was fine.
Mergim Bajraliu, 17, heard the gunshots echo from his home and ran to check on his 9-year-old sister at the school. He said his sister, who was fine, heard a scream come over the intercom at one point. He said teachers were shaking and crying as they came out of the building.
“Everyone was just traumatized,” he said.
Mary Pendergast, who lives close to the school, said her 9-year-old nephew was in the school at the time of the shooting, but wasn’t hurt after his music teacher helped him take cover in a closet.
Richard Wilford’s 7-year-old son, Richie, is in the second grade at the school. His son told him that he heard a noise that “sounded like what he described as cans falling.”
The boy told him a teacher went out to check on the noise, came back in, locked the door and had the kids huddle up in the corner until police arrived.
“There’s no words,” Wilford said. “It’s sheer terror, a sense of imminent danger, to get to your child and be there to protect him.”
On Friday afternoon, family members were led away from a firehouse that was being used as a staging area, some of them weeping. One man, wearing only a T-shirt without a jacket, put his arms around a woman as they walked down the middle of the street, oblivious to everything around them.
Another woman with tears rolling down her face walked by carrying a car seat with a young infant inside and a bag that appeared to have toys and stuffed animals.
The shootings instantly brought to mind episodes such as the Columbine High School massacre that killed 15 in 1999 and the July shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that left 12 dead.
“You go to a movie theater in Aurora and all of a sudden your life is taken,” Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis said. “You’re at a shopping mall in Portland, Ore., and your life is taken. This morning, when parents kissed their kids goodbye knowing that they are going to be home to celebrate the holiday season coming up, you don’t expect this to happen. I think as a society, we need to come together. It has to stop, these senseless deaths.”
Obama’s comments on the tragedy amounted to one of the most outwardly emotional moments of his presidency.
“The majority of those who died were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” Obama said.
He paused for several seconds to keep his composure as he teared up and wiped an eye. Nearby, two aides cried and held hands as they listened to Obama.
“They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, wedding, kids of their own,” Obama continued about the victims. “Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children.”