By LIBBY CLUETT
PALO PINTO COUNTY – As funerals begin for 20 first-grade students and six school employees of Sandy Hook Elementary School, so many questions weigh in the minds of Americans, such as “why?” and how do we protect a community’s youngest, most vulnerable children.
Shortly after Friday’s massacre in Newtown, Conn., Gov. Rick Perry requested that Texas Education Agency Commissioner Michael Williams direct Texas school districts to review their emergency operation plans to ensure all schools are prepared to respond to such potential threats.
“The horrific event that transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary … is as profoundly disturbing as it is impossible to fully understand,” Gov. Perry stated in a press release.
“It is essential that we ensure all Texas schools are equipped and ready to carry out a strategic plan to secure the safety of students and staff in the event of a threat such as the one that occurred today,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families impacted by today’s tragedy, while our focus here is on doing everything within our power to protect the safety of Texas children whose parents have entrusted them to the care of our public schools.”
Passed in 2005, Senate Bill 11 requires school districts and public junior colleges to adopt and implement a multi-hazard emergency operations plan that includes district employee training and mandatory school drills to prepare students and employees for responding to an emergency.
To help assuage concerns about children’s safety, Perrin-Whitt Consolidated ISD Superintendent John Kuhn wrote parents a letter, in which he said, “Please be assured that the PWCISD faculty has no higher priority than the safety of our students and staff.”
He added that PWCISD has a crisis-management plan in place that is updated regularly “and that administration has closely reviewed in the past few days.”
Kuhn informed parents of some immediate changes.
“I have instructed staff that all exterior doors to all buildings are to remain locked at all times, with the exception of the main entrances to the administration building, the main elementary building and the main high school building,” he wrote. “Since we have classes in several buildings, this will present some logistical challenges in terms of getting students into and out of buildings between classes, but safety is more important than convenience.”
Kuhn said the district recently installed a new security system with cameras and remote-monitored motion sensors as part of ongoing security efforts. In addition, PWCISD, like all U.S. public school systems, has a crisis-management plan in place, which has to be updated every three years.
In its crisis-management plan PWCISD addresses how it will respond to a variety of incidents, such as criminal acts, fire, severe weather and environmental disasters, Kuhn said.
“In the coming weeks, with the memory of this recent tragedy still fresh on our minds, we will be leading our students through several safety drills: lock-down drills, tornado drills, fire drills and shelter-in-place/environmental disaster drills,” Kuhn wrote parents.
Schools have drills periodically, he said, but added, “This will be a good time to have them.”
“Our hearts go out to the students, families and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School,” said Millsap ISD Superintendent David Belding, who echoed others stating that the district’s number one priority is the safety of the district’s students and staff.
“We follow well developed safety plans for each of our schools,” he said. “Our campus staff are closely monitoring campus security to ensure a safe environment.
“We want to reassure students and parents that children are safe in our schools and our staff will work diligently to maintain a secure environment,” Belding said.
Another factor for a district is having trained, professional staff on hand to help others cope with such a tragedy.
“We also are going to work closely with parents to provide support to students who may have difficulty dealing with the events in Connecticut,” Belding noted.
“As caring adults, our responses will be critical in creating a healthy environment for children,” he wrote parents. “Counselors are available to provide support to students or parents that may be struggling with the events of last Friday.”
Belding offered the following suggestions for parents:
• Reassure students that they are safe.
• Limit exposure of children to the news coverage.
• Let the questions from the children guide the information we provide.
• Keep a watchful eye on children to detect signs of stress or anxiety.
• Maintain a normal routine.
“Strong communication between parents and school staff will be vital in order to support students,” he told parents. “If you need assistance, please do not hesitate to contact the school.”
Similarly, MWISD Superintendent Gail Haterius shared her sadness for all affected by Friday’s tragedy and said the district has counselors, trained in crisis management and procedures, for those who need help in the aftermath of Friday’s tragedy.
Like the other public districts, MWISD has an emergency-operations plan practiced on a regular basis, which Haterius said includes “shelter-in-place” and “lock down,” like what Sandy Hook Elementary teachers employed Friday.
“We will keep reviewing and updating plans as needed,” she added.
While she talked to Mineral Wells Police Chief Dean Sullivan Friday, after hearing of the shooting in Connecticut, Haterius noted Monday, “In the near future, we will try to get with the county and city to review processes when it would involve more than our schools.”
In his press statement, Gov. Perry referred districts to the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University as a resource to assist in developing a plan of response or improving an existing plan.
Additional resources are available to districts at TSSC’s website, http://www.txssc.txstate.edu/K12/.