Students begin to head home as another school day at Central Elementary School in La Grande comes to an end Friday afternoon. Teachers and staff administrators in the La Grande School District did not report encountering many students Friday who were shaken emotionally by the news of the shooting because few knew about it when the school day ended. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
Local school officials say safety remains top priority for staff
The days before Christmas vacation in schools are normally exciting and festive.
This feeling is now tempered as children, teenagers and educators in Union and Wallowa county schools return to classes after reflecting this weekend on the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., which left 27 children and adults dead.
The students in Union and Wallowa counties were greeted by teachers, counselors and administrators who were ready to extend words of reassurance and to listen.
“If they are upset or troubled, we want them to talk about it. We want them to express their fears and ask questions,” said Linda Carlsen, a counselor at Central Elementary School. “We want them to know that whatever they are feeling, it is OK.”
Teachers and staff administrators in the La Grande School District did not report encountering many students Friday who were shaken emotionally by the news of the shooting because few knew about it when the school day ended. Many of the students’ parents expressed deep concerns though.
La Grande Middle School Principal Kyle McKinney said that six or seven parents came to his school to take their students home early because of the Connecticut tragedy.
“We need to talk at home,” McKinney said one parent told him.
LMS Secretary Ellen Jones said one parent called to ask her to relay a message to her children.
“Tell them I love them,” the parent told Jones, who wrote the message and then gave it to each of the children.
At Central Elementary School, the father of two children made a special trip to greet them as they left school.
“I did it to make myself feel better,” the father said.
No assemblies to talk about the tragedy were planned in the La Grande School District. Instead, teachers planned on talking in their classrooms to students about the incident.
Central Elementary School Principal Reta Doland said classrooms are a better place to discuss something like this.
“We want to give them a chance to talk in a natural setting. Students are more comfortable talking in a classroom with their teachers,” Doland said.
Carlsen believes students will benefit from the fact they had the weekend to talk the tragedy over with their parents.
“This allowed them to process it first with their families. The best discussions, which can happen, are those with families,” the counselor said.
Carlsen anticipates older children will have a more challenging time dealing with the tragedy than the younger ones. She said younger children are more focused on their immediate world and less likely to be disturbed by something happening far away.
Doland said that while her staff is ready to do everything it can to help students, it will not be bringing up the tragedy unless students express a desire to talk about it or they sense a feeling of anxiety. Doland said the school’s staff will be trying to reassure those frightened by letting them know they are in good hands.
“We are here for them,” the Central principal said. “We want them to know that they are surrounded by people who will protect them.”
Greenwood Elementary School Principal Mike Gregory said he wants students and parents to know that security is always a top priority.
“Safety is our No. 1 job. It (providing a safe environment) is the most important thing we do,’’ Gregory said.
In the wake of the shooting, Gregory said he will continue to be extra vigilant, watching for any unusual activity. Gregory said he tries to spend a minimal amount of time in his office when school is in session.
“I try to be out in the building as much as possible,” he said.
Law enforcement taking active role
Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen said that first and foremost, the community must be working to identify individuals who represent a threat to others, and intervene with mental health and law enforcement officials. Another important step, Rasmussen said, is to limit firearm access to those dangerous individuals, without infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens.
The sheriff said his deputies train in the schools to familiarize themselves with layout, and also learn layout details in the course of their duties. He also said that two or three years ago, the Sheriff’s Office sent letters to school districts alerting them to grant opportunities that would help them add security features. He said the La Grande district took advantage, but wasn’t sure about others.
“We’re committed to working with our schools and being proactive with our partners to ensure the safety of our children,” Rasmussen said.
La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey said it’s a mistake for people to think that a mass killing like the one in Connecticut would never happen in La Grande. He said security is an issue here as much as in any location in the United States.
Harvey said his officers team often with other law enforcement agencies on training in “active killer” scenarios, and are continually updating plans. An active killer, Harvey said, is defined by police as one who is attempting to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time possible.
Though local police rigorously train for such events and work with schools and various agencies in their prevention, Harvey said that when it comes to providing a high level of security, politics and budget matters always factor in.
“As usual, we have fewer cops on the street and the school districts have fewer employees,” he said.
The chief said law enforcement agencies, school districts and Eastern Oregon University communicate regularly on security issues. He said the next meeting has been moved to an earlier date.
Answer questions honestly
Parents are being advised by school officials to answer questions their children have about the shooting honestly, and to let them know they are there for them.
Doland said she is encouraging parents not to have their children see too much television coverage of the shooting. She said this can cause “hysteria.’’
Teresa Dowdy, a counselor at La Grande High School, agrees that this is a good idea.
“You can get Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from watching a traumatic event over and over,’’ Dowdy said.
Gregory hopes to alleviate any extra stress his students may feel by maintaining the same schedule Greenwood follows.
“It is important that we keep our routine for kids,’’ Gregory said.
Imbler School District Superintendent Doug Hislop has a similar sentiment. Hislop said his schools will be conducting lockdown and lock-out drills but that he wants to be careful not to conduct too many because this might cause children to start worrying.
The Enterprise School District also will be conducting a lockdown drill this week. Lockdown drills are conducted to prepare schools for incidents in which an intruder is in a building. Brad Royse, superintendent of the Enterprise School District said he will be emphasizing to students that this will be a drill just like a fire and or an earthquake drill. He wants to avoid getting students alarmed.
“Our job is to keep you safe,” Royse said he will be telling students.
La Grande School District Superintendent Larry Glaze is having schools take a number of steps to boost security and address related issues in light of the Friday shooting. These include having all schools review lock-in and lock-out procedures and conduct drills for each. The drills may be conducted with or without students present.
Glaze has also distributed a manual from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to counselors, administrators and all teachers, which provides tips for talking with and helping children and youth cope with a disaster or traumatic event.