Columbia Public Schools leaves Sandy Hook discussions up to parents

Monday, December 17, 2012 | 5:51 p.m. CST; updated 7:38 p.m. CST, Monday, December 17, 2012

COLUMBIA — On the first day of school since the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., elementary school principals in Columbia Public Schools were keeping things as normal as possible.

Elaine Hassemer, principal of Paxton Keeley Elementary School, said that at a staff meeting Monday morning, she instructed teachers to not bring up the incident unless the children did.

Carole Garth, principal at New Haven Elementary School, also said she told staff not to allow discussion of the tragedy in class.

"Parents really know their children best. Some are sensitive, and some are resilient. And we, as educators, can't identify that as well as a parent can," Garth said.

They and two other elementary school principals reached Monday said counseling has been available at the schools but that no one had taken advantage of it so far.

District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said that principals weren't told what to do in this case but that there are guidelines in place. Classroom discussions of this nature would not be appropriate at the elementary level, she said.

"That’s a common practice because the levels of understanding for elementary students are different than what they would be for middle school or high school students," Baumstark said.

Letter: security at school

On Monday, a letter went out from Superintendent Chris Belcher to parents and guardians addressing school security. It read as follows (some paragraphs have been divided to make reading easier):

"As we continue to follow the tragedy in Connecticut, it is only natural to think of our own children. As parents, we think what we are doing every day to make sure they are safe. Please be assured that safety is a top priority for Columbia Public Schools, and we have multiple safety measures in place.

"All staff members in our district, including teachers, administrators and support staff, are trained in emergency response procedures. We have plans in place for each of our buildings to deal with emergency situations, including those similar to what occurred on Friday. We also run regular drills, including an active intruder drill, which helps keep the right procedures and precautions fresh in our minds.

"Our school district has a strong partnership with our local police, sheriff’s and fire departments, and we work closely with them to ensure our schools are as safe as possible.

"We have four full‐time school resource officers in our secondary schools. We have two recently retired Columbia police officers who serve as the school district’s full‐time safety and security officers. They are quick to respond.

"Additionally, we regularly consult with law enforcement about safety issues and have partnered with the Columbia Police Department to place a police substation at Jefferson Junior High School. This is a pilot program which, if successful, could be implemented at other school buildings.

"The school district is constantly evaluating its safety and security. The Columbia Board of Education was updated on the district’s security needs and plans on Dec. 10. Those plans include additional lighting in parking lots, installation of video intercom and electronic door locks in all school buildings, installation of additional security cameras and replacing handheld radios.

"Earlier this fall, the board was also given an update on the implementation of the active intruder response program the district implemented.

"Counselors in our buildings are available to help students who may need assistance. If your child would like to speak to someone at school about his or her feelings, concerns or fears, please let us know or encourage him or her to reach out to a trusted adult. It is critical that your child feels safe at school so they are free to learn.

"Please be assured that Columbia Public Schools has the safety and best interests of your child in mind at all times. We will work together to make sure that our procedures for preventing and dealing with situations such as this are as strong as possible, and that our children are protected. We will continue to re‐examine and review all of our procedures as we move forward.

"Thank you for your support and please keep the town of Newtown, Connecticut in your thoughts."

Letter: talking with children

On Friday, the district sent out the following email from Belcher to parents and guardians:

"The safety and well-being of our students and staff is a priority for Columbia Public Schools. Our goal is for all students to achieve high academic standards within a safe learning environment. Because of today’s shooting incident in Connecticut, we think it is important to encourage you to be especially sensitive and prepared to offer support to your child during this time.

"Your child may want to talk to you about his or her feelings. Talking about feelings will help your child deal with this tragic event. Listen attentively. You may see behavior changes. Some things to look for might include:

  • Restlessness, nervous behavior
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares
  • 'Clingy' behavior, fear of being alone
  • Asking questions over and over again
  • Remembering previous losses and events

"When talking with your child about this traumatic situation, keep in mind:

"Children do not have to know everything about a violent situation in order to come to some understanding about it.

"Be sensitive to the child’s questions, taking cues from what is asked and the level of cognitive and emotional development.

"Permit your child to talk about his or her feelings.

"Children’s concerns do not always reach us through conversation. Sometimes they come obliquely through play. Always make yourself available for conversation if the play leads naturally to talk.

"Show your understanding and caring when sharing news about this tragic event with your child.

"Talk at the child’s eye level. Touch or hold him or her when appropriate. Hugs and sitting close can say a lot.

"If you have concerns regarding your child’s reaction to this tragic event, contact your child’s teachers, the school counselor or administrative staff.

"Thank you for your concern and support."

Missourian reporters Whitney Hayward, Heesu Lee and Robert Swain contributed to this article.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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