Students may not notice much that is different when they return to school Monday morning.
But behind the scenes, in the wake of the killing rampage Friday in Newtown, Conn., school districts will have scrambled to place school crisis teams on alert, teachers will have rehearsed how to answer difficult questions, and all kids will find themselves under extra scrutiny for any telltale signs of distress.
The overriding theme will be a simple one: You are safe with us.
“Schools are among the safest public places kids can be in the United States,” said James Cook, a school psychologist with the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district. “It’s important for parents to understand that, even in light of a tragedy like this.”
In the days after one of the most horrifying acts of gun violence in the nation’s history, many area superintendents are communicating that message by letter, email and robocall, or will be doing so by Monday.
“We want to move back into as normal a pattern as possible, while reinforcing to our students, No. 1, that our schools are safe,” said Grand Island Superintendent Robert Christmann, who is issuing an e-alert to parents Monday morning. “If they don’t feel safe, there’s going to be an impact on learning.”
The Buffalo school district is going one step further by beefing up police presence in schools and sending all of its high school students through either stationary or hand-held metal detectors Monday.
“It’s been our experience it makes them feel safer,” said Will Keresztes, associate superintendent for educational services.
Buffalo Superintendent Pamela Brown also sent a robo-phone message for all district parents Saturday night regarding school security measures and support services, and both the Buffalo and Williamsville districts have posted information on their websites about how to talk with children regarding crisis situations.
Balancing the likely need to address specific questions asked by concerned students against the desire to maintain a normal environment and reassure children that their schools are safe is difficult, administrators said.
“It’s a balance that teachers, principals [and] counselors have to strike,” said Orchard Park Superintendent Matt McGarrity. “The email’s been flying this weekend with our staff and with our principals just in preparation for that.”
Building principals are holding staff meetings prior to the arrival of students, he said, and educators will be rehearsing age-appropriate answers to common questions their students are expected to pose.
“The hard part is, we don’t know within the homes how much has been discussed or how much hasn’t been discussed,” he said. “We just want to make sure we have the appropriate answers for them. It’s really just a lot of reassurance.”
Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald Ogilvie said many classroom teachers may make some acknowledgement of Friday’s tragedy on Monday and give special attention to children who have questions or concerns. But otherwise, they’ll be working hard to maintain existing school routines.
“There’s comfort and predictability in that,” he said.
All schools already have building safety plans in place that are reviewed annually, though Friday’s events are prompting districts on Monday to begin the hard work of re-evaluating those existing plans to see what more can be done, said Ogilvie said other top school administrators.
“We’re not necessarily looking at doing anything new. However, we will be looking at everything,” Keresztes said, “My first call is going to be to parents Monday morning. What are we missing that they’re seeing?”
Cook, the Ken-Ton psychologist, said he expects to be on call Monday but would be surprised if he receives a flood of referrals among the children at Hamilton Elementary School, where he works.
Young children at the elementary level tend to have a very physical and literal understanding of the world around them, he said. Some may find it hard to connect to the tragedy, while others are often looking for very basic answers to their questions.
What is more common immediately after this kind of event, Cook said, is for him to get calls from concerned parents. “Sometimes the parents are more upset than the kids,” he said. “I hear from the parents who don’t know what to say.”
Cook, who has counseled children at all grade levels, said he expects to give the same advice to parents Monday that many other experts recommend – really listen to what a child is asking and don’t inundate them with details they haven’t asked for.
“Give basic, factual information,” he said. “Sometimes parents give more information than is necessary. Answer what a child most wants to know.”
And above all, both educators and counselors said, Monday is a day for everyone to reinforce the message that what happened in Newtown, Conn., is a rare event and that they will be OK in school.