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Roanoke County Schools Deal With Sandy Hook Tragedy

Roanoke County Police Officers help oversee the recent practice of a school lockdown.

A smallish elementary school, tucked away in a sleepy town, in a suburban area not known for violence. Sounds like it could be many of the schools in Roanoke County. Yet it was Newtown, Connecticut, and Sandy Hook Elementary School, the sight of unspeakable tragedy last Friday, when Adam Lanza gunned down twenty first grade schoolchildren and six adult staff members at the school.

The 20-year-old gunman, who then took his own life as police approached the building, was armed with three guns and had broken through a front window to gain access to the school, which had locked doors and a buzzer system for entry. Some Roanoke County Schools have the same security system – locked doors and buzzer entry – while others will soon be retrofitted for that.  Meanwhile an enhanced police presence at county elementary schools was visible earlier this week, a subject that had parents chattering on Facebook.

Fran Kiker and Michele Dowdy, both coordinators of counseling services for Roanoke County Schools, have been working hard since last Friday to make sure that young students, teachers and staff members can cope with life after Newtown. Kiker saw what was happening on her iPad last Friday afternoon and was left with a “real sinking feeling” about the tragedy.  Kiker said all school buildings are being assessed on their security level; some older students did talk to counselors about their own safety after the shootings.

Dowdy’s sister called her; a niece lives about 15 minutes away from Sandy Hook. “My first reaction was anger – just so frustrated that [mass shootings] continue to happen. Those sweet young children did nothing.”  Dowdy praised President Barack Obama for the “stellar job” he did at the Sunday night memorial service, when Obama read the first names of the slain children, as many in the audience sobbed audibly.

Kiker said a memo went out immediately to school counselors and teachers last Friday, with input from Superintendent Dr. Lorraine Lange. Some of it was the same material that was distributed after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 – the only school-based mass shooting in the U.S. worse than Newtown.  The memo last week reminded teachers and counselors about “what would be appropriate” to tell students about Newtown, given their specific age group or grade.

Dowdy visited some schools this past Monday and noticed it seemed to be “business as usual,” with students calm. Several parents expressed concern for school safety but were assured that Roanoke County does have an action plan, where students head to a corner of the room and teachers shield them with desks if a shooter is present on campus.

“All of these things have been in place in Roanoke County for years,” said Dowdy, who believes more lives would have been lost at Sandy Hook Elementary if teachers had not led their students to safety – in closets, locked bathrooms, etc., as per safety procedures in place.

Kiker said feedback from school counselors on long-term solutions to the problem of mass shootings includes more mental health assistance for troubled students – before they become alienated and resort to violence. Lanza is reported to have had Asberger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, but experts have said that there is no known direct link between Asberger’s and extreme violence as seen in Newtown.

“The ability to pay for that help is not there,” noted Kiker. Dowdy said there used to be more funding in place to help those with mental issues but much of it has been cut from state budgets.

“We’re going to have to take a look at that,” said Dowdy. Kiker read a story online from a mother afraid of her own 13-year-old son, wondering where she can get mental health help for him. Parents also need to know that it is better to get help for their troubled child, rather than trying to “gloss over it,” said Kiker.

Older children who watch the news or see stories online may realize that Sandy Hook “can happen anywhere” and has before – with Columbine High School being the most obvious comparison.  Children who are asking general questions about Roanoke County’s security plan seemed satisfied when they heard some of the details, said Dowdy.

 “We all ask questions, because in the end we all want to know why,” said Kiker. Dowdy concurs, saying some adult staff members at schools also wanted to know how safe they were in Roanoke County Schools.

For the youngest students, teachers are just listening to their concerns and answering questions about Sandy Hook if asked, assuring them they will be okay. Kiker doesn’t want children to be overwhelmed with information. Parents, if asked at home, should not overwhelm their child with details either. “Short answers are the best – the kids will ask more questions if they want to know more,” said Dowdy.

Parents need to let their children know that they are loved and cared for. Sandy Hook is “an odd thing… that can happen anywhere,” according to Dowdy. “We don’t have any guarantees… but they need to know they are safe. We are doing everything we can.”

By Gene Marrano

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