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Conn. school shooting raises questions about school safety
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Superintendent's response to Connecticut shootings

Dear Parents,

By now you are well aware of the tragic school shooting that occurred Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As a parents I am heavy-hearted and know that you, like me, are hurting. There will be extensive media coverage of this terrible tragedy on the news and much discussion about it in our communities in the days and weeks ahead.

I want to assure that the safety of our students is our main concern and that our schools have a crisis plan in place to help avoid tragedies such as these. Each school regularly practices emergency response drills and we continually evaluate our safety and security procedures. In light of this tragedy, all schools went on a heightened state of alert on Friday and all principals are attending a mandatory safety meeting on Monday to review school safety procedures.

Unfortunately, the events in Newtown, Connecticut serve as a stark reminder for the importance of these school safety procedures and it is imperative that parents assist us in following our front office procedures when arriving on campus. Use front entrances only when visiting school and check into the office immediately upon arrival; don't forget to let us know when you are leaving. We ask that you continue to help us by being our eyes and ears on campus and reporting any safety concerns you notice.

While no amount of planning can guarantee that a tragedy such as this will not occur, we do everything we know to keep students and staff safe while at school. In addition, it is equally important for us to work with our staff and ensure they are prepared to support their students in difficult times. We will have our school counselors and administrators ready on Monday morning to respond to students as needed. As we learn more details about this tragic incident in the days and weeks ahead, it will be important for you to spend time talking with your children and helping them cope with this news. We know that children may raise questions and concerns about this tragedy so I am sharing several tips from the American Psychological Association (APA) for parents to consider:

Talk with your child. If children ask questions, talking to them about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know that you are there and listening to them.

Keep home a safe place. Children, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that your children may come home seeking the safe feeling they have being there.

Watch for signs of stress, fear, or anxiety. After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your children's behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on schoolwork, or changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in a few months.

Take ‘news breaks.' You children may want to keep informed by gathering information about the event from the internet, television, or newspapers. It is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news because constant exposure may actually heighten their anxiety and fears.

If you have any questions or concerns about your school's safety or your child's reaction to this tragic event, please know you are always welcome to contact the school principal, counselor, or central office administrators. We have school psychologists and social workers on hand who can assist parents in talking with their children or answering questions.

In closing, I ask that you please keep the families of those involved in this terrible tragedy in your thoughts and prayers. We will learn more details in the hours and days ahead and we will discuss and debrief with administrators and staff accordingly.

Yours Very Truly,
Gary S. Mathews, Ph.D
Newton County Schools


In the wake of the tragic shooting that claimed 26 people's lives, including 20 children, in Newtown, Conn. Friday, communities across the nation weep for those lost and hold their own loved ones closer. But the questions also begin and one rises above the others: Is Newton County prepared to respond to such a tragedy in its own backyard?

The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, reportedly shot his mother Nancy (who may have been a substitute teacher at the school), then took her car to Sandy Hook Elementary School with a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both semiautomatic pistols, and a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle - all registered to his mother. He opened fire around 9:30 a.m. in the kindergarten through fourth grade school. The majority of his victims were between the ages of 5 and 10, but he also killed principal Dawn Hochsprung, who authorities have said died as she lunged at Lanza in an attempt to stop him, before finally killing himself.

The Connecticut shooting is the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, second only to the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 which left 33 dead, including gunman 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho.
Newton County schools went on what Superintendent Gary Mathews called a soft lockdown (outer doors locked, front doors opened but monitored) Friday following the news of the shooting as a precautionary measure and that student resources officers - dedicated sheriff's deputies in schools - were on alert.

"NCSS schools have emergency plans in place," said Mathews. "As such, I will not detail them here. But, please know that I will be asking principals to review them most immediately with their faculties and staff. And where there are concerns given these plans, we want to hear about them.
"Our hearts certainly go out to the Connecticut families who have now experienced the unspeakable. People of faith everywhere pray that the Almighty has gathered these little ones and the adults who were their teachers and principal in his arms as of yesterday. Pray, too, that he will bring a measure of solace to the families and friends so deeply hurt by this act of evil."

State of safety in our schools
Although there are not metal detectors in Newton County schools, there are SROs in all middle and high schools. The NCSS has also been piloting classroom cameras (ViewPath) and silent alarms (SAFE) in Newton High School.

"To be blunt, not only has this camera and silent alarm pilot resulted in much improved classroom discipline, according to NHS personnel, it has been part of our vision to mitigate against the kind of horror we've just witnessed in Connecticut," said Mathews. "Based on the NHS pilot, I will certainly be urging further expansion of ViewPath and SAFE in our schools."

Local law enforcement officials participate in active shooter training on an annual basis to prepare for just such an occurrence. The program has taken place in schools before, as well as churches and other businesses. During active shooter training, there are simulated victims and an unknown shooter or shooters; the program is designed to prepare officers to be able to deal real life horror situations. According to Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton and Sheriff Ezell Brown, this type of training is imperative to prepare officers as best as possible in case of the worst.

Although there are two schools in city limits, the Newton County Sheriff's Office contracts with the Newton County School System to provide law enforcement assistance in the schools in the form of School Resource Officers. However, Cotton said police would assist at any time if they were requested to do so, and if an incident happened within the city, police would immediately respond.

"The one thing we need to understand about this particular issue is that many times you don't have time to wait for other agencies and SWAT teams," Cotton said. "It's the responding officers who have to take immediate action, so we make sure our officers are trained to respond to any situation."
Brown also touted active shooter programs as a key part of training and planning for situations such as the one that took place in Newtown Friday.

"We're going to look at every aspect on it [the possibility of making changes in the way they work in the schools] and we're going to improve where we need to and enhance our visibility in the schools and continue to work with teachers and SROs to ensure they do the very best to protect our teachers, students and faculty," Brown said.

"I think we have seen a worldwide increase in this type of violence, not only just schools in all locations. It's one of the things we have to be vigilant and be aware that it could happen in most any place," Brown said. "I never imagined someone would have that bent of mind to take the life of young innocent individuals. This is law enforcement's worst nightmare for something like this to happen in one of our schools."

Head SRO Deputy Cortney Morrison said that SROs are trained to know what to do in situations such as the one in Newtown, adding that the training situations are "very stressful" so that law enforcement knows how to react if something does occur.

"You learn to how to assess things in a split second and how to react in a situation like that," she said.
Morrison said that SROs are also familiar with who typically comes in and out of the middle and high schools in the county (where there is at least one SRO at all times), and that if a visitor comes into the school and does not check in at the office, they are retrieved by the SRO before they get very far into the school.

"For us, these policies have always been in place. Of course, anytime you have a situation like this come up we always review our policies and procedures. You never want it to happen anywhere, but we have to be prepared in case it does happen... Anytime you have violence against children, it's going to be shocking because as a human being you don't want to believe that someone would hurt children," Morrison said. "But is it a shock as to where we are in the world that someone acts like this? No."

Although there are not currently SROs in the county's elementary schools, Morrison said that, at the most, a SRO is mere minutes away from an elementary school. In some cases such as Newton High and Porterdale Elementary schools (which are next door to one another), an SRO is only seconds away.
The cost of a single SRO is split between the NCSO and the NCSS and is roughly $40,000, based on previous news articles.

Societal trend?
While mass shootings are not on the rise, according to multiple experts, the fact that they still continue to occur time after time is troubling, said Robert Friedmann, with Georgia State University's Department of Criminal Justice.

"Clearly this is one of the worse school shootings in U.S. history, second to Virginia Tech, but clearly high up there. Each such mass shooting is a horrible tragedy and regrettably we have seen dozens of those in our history," Friedmann said in an email to The News. "The continued trend, even if it is not up - just the fact that mass shootings take place - is indeed very alarming. Every time this happens we hope this was the last incident and then it happens again. To me, that is the real problem."

While the motivation for such shootings is psychological, Friedmann said these shootings are also taking place in a social context.

"What I mean by social context is this: an individual has some sort of a conflict such as a quarrel, being angry at someone, being fired or holding some sort of a grudge or grievance. That conflict could be resolved by a number of ways other than by resorting to violence, except that those who decide on the criminal course - for them it is the first option and they do not see any other ways to control their behavior," Friedmann said.

"Of course, identifying such individuals ahead of the outburst is not an easy task. I am focusing more on the social aspects because it appears to be so ingrained in American culture that while it occasionally happens elsewhere it is all too common here."

Closer to home
Newton County schools, like many across the nation, have had increased safety protocols in place since the April 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. Locally, just one month after 13 were killed in Colorado, and many more injured, a sophomore at Heritage High School in Conyers opened fire in the school's common area wounding six fellow students.

"We've practiced lock down procedures for unwanted visitors for years," a local elementary school teacher said. "I think that all started after Columbine. If it was a possibility in our high schools, it was a possibility in any school."

Earlier this month, schools were on alert as two accused child molesters were on the loose in the rural areas of Newton County. Schools were prepared for a confrontation, though the situation is a little different given the threat was known ahead of time.

However, just because the teacher had at least conceived of the possibility of such a shooting taking place - because she knows there are crazy people in this world - that doesn't mean the world doesn't still feel a little different today.

"The reality that things can happen at home is more prevalent," the teacher said. "We were prepared for it, but I always thought it would happen somewhere else. But now the reality that it could happen in your own backyard is more prevalent; it does make you more uneasy, more weary.

"That's sad because we're still dealing with children who are innocent. Even at the upper grades, they still have an innocent view, they still feel protected...It's hard to wrap your mind about it; they're babies is all I can think of - the Kindergarten kids."

Editor Gabriel Khouli contributed to this story.