Niagara Gazette

December 17, 2012

Staying safe in local schools

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Millions around the country returned to school Monday for the first time since a shooter killed 28 people – 20 of them young children – in Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Friday.

And each one of them has a concerned parent or two wondering just how safe their school is. Many of them spent extra time with their child Monday, gave them extra hugs and kisses before letting them out of the car or onto the bus.

"They are both safe," Carrie Helms Capps, a mother of two, said on the Gazette Facebook page Monday. "I did give them a little more special attention this morning along with extra hugs and kisses. As they went out the door I watched them walking down the street and said a prayer."

The mother of 11- and 5-year-old sons was joined by many parents in expressing her confidence in the security of the area's schools on the page. And whether in Lewiston-Porter, Niagara-Wheatfield or Niagara Falls, educators and administrators set out to maintain their confidence Monday, while also trying to ensure the day went as normal as any other day for the students.

By all accounts, they were successful.

"We felt it was important to continue our regular routine of school," Lew-Port Superintendent Christopher Roser said. "We felt that was the best course possible. But we also knew we wanted to be reassuring we have safe schools. So we were more than welcoming when our kids came back."

Making sure the children are safe is the key responsibility of the school district, Roser said. And he reiterated the safety protocols in place to ensure no one will repeat the latest mass killing in the United States in Lewiston.

He credits the presence of the Lewiston Police Department and its public showing during both drop off and pick up Monday as signs the district, and the community as a whole, is taking security seriously.

In addition, the district's crisis response team met both after school Friday and before it opened Monday to discuss how to handle any situations.

He said the district also decided not to address the matter with the children, leaving it up to parents to handle.

Lew-Port Intermediate Principal Andrew Auer said many of the school's parents decided not to address the matter with their youngest, which he said is the appropriate response.

"Parents really are the first line of defense in situations like this," Auer said. "I spent much of my time in the lunchroom today. I do anyway, but (Monday) I was particularly paying attention to what the different conversations were. And the shooting was not one of them. And that's a good thing. I think shielding the children from things like this is the appropriate thing to do."

Meanwhile at Niagara Street School, while gun violence hasn't stepped through the doors at the school, school Principal Paulette Pierce said she's aware of the neighborhood's challenges.

She should be, she grew up in and still lives in the community herself.

Stopping and changing the culture is a community effort, she said, something which goes beyond just the four walls of a school building. She said the businesses in the area, the churches and pastors and parents have come together to combat as much as possible.

Called the PACT – Parent Academy Collaboration Team – the group is trying to stop the fighting and troubles.

"We are definitely more alert," she said. "The bottom line is it's not just us. It's all of us. It's everyone helping us. It's Charles Walker at the hospital, it's (Police Superintendent John) Chella. It's Ron Anderluh and the Niagara Street Business Association. It's not just one person, it's the community."

Procedures and training within a school might be the best way to keep children safe, especially after the heroic tales of some of Sandy Hook's teachers sheltering their students in the midst of Friday's chaos.

It's those procedures, drilled into the heads of the entire staff, which routinely save the lives of countless people in each of these situations. And practicing those situations is a common occurrence in each of the districts.

"We actually have drills," Pierce said. "We're continuously practicing. Eventually, it gets to be a natural response. We go into automatic mode."

Niagara-Wheatfield Superintendent James Knowles said his district's approach was the same as the others in the region, with a focus on acting normal.

"I spoke with the principals of the schools (Monday) and my advice was to find a way to make the day as normal as possible," he said. "Meaning don't dwell on things. But if a child asks, we needed to have a response for them. We need to let the children know their safe in school."

TALK IT OVER Did you shield your child from Friday's news? How did you handle dropping your children off at school or the bus stop Monday? Join the conversation at Facebook.com/niagara.gazette.