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Local school district officials respond to Sandy Hook school shooting

SPRINGVILLE — “No matter what our duties are, within this school district, we all have a common goal,” said Springville-Griffith Institute Superintendent of Schools Paul Connelly. “We all help to guide kids from their tiny, young lives, through their young adulthood.”

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., local educators took immediate action to, as Connelly put it, look after the students, the teachers and the community, in the wake of what he called “an unspeakable tragedy.”

On Friday, Dec. 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother Dawn Lanza, before bringing a rifle with multiple rounds of ammunition into Sandy Hook Elementary School, located in the 27,000-resident town of Newtown, Conn. Lanza killed six teachers and 20 students, including six women, eight boys and 12 girls. All of the students were 6 or 7 years old.

The Newtown shooting is the second-deadliest school shooting in United States history and one of the highest mortality rates, worldwide, after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University, which killed 33 people, including the gunman, and the mass killing of 77 teenagers in Norway, last year. There was no evidence that Lanza had been trained or active in the local recreational gun community.

Connelly sent a statement to teachers and staff on Saturday, Dec. 15 that said he and the rest of the employees are “cognizant of the effects this tragedy may have on our children.”

He asked teachers and staff to “keep a fine eye on our kids and be more sensitive to them,” noting that the range of emotions the children experience can vary widely.

“Our responses need to be that of understanding and tolerance. This is tricky stuff. Know that, in the wake of this tragedy, your interactions with students, in the next few days, may send a magnifying message that can actually shape their lives.”

The S-GI superintendent also pointed out the district’s employee assistance program, reminding staff members to think of themselves, as they help students deal with the aftermath of the event.

Connelly, with the help of his wife, a social worker in the Orchard Park School District, also compiled a list of links to websites and organizations for students, staff members, parents and community members and said he hoped people would utilize those resources to help process the emotions that would come out of the event.

Connelly said he spent time in each of the district’s school buildings and the bus garage on Friday, during the weekend and Monday, Dec. 17, asking his staff to have “heightened awareness” of how students might be feeling.

“The parents, kids, teachers and staff, all of us, need to work tighter with folks,” Connelly said. “The bus drivers are huge. They see these kids, every day. They know them. I’ve been walking around, trying to be as visible as possible. We’re all working together, to help each other out, during this difficult, difficult time.”

Eric Lawton, superintendent of West Valley Central School commended Connelly for his response to the event, and said that he followed suit, in the WVCS District.

“We shared some of the same links that Connelly did, and I really emphasized that we’re all here to support our staff and each other,” Lawton explained. “As teachers, we are so concerned about our students that, sometimes, we forget to worry about ourselves.”

Lawton said that the Sandy Hook shooting brought to mind other tragedies that have occurred, during his 20 years in education. Lawton was a teacher at Pembroke Central School in 1987, when three students and a teacher were killed in a crash between a drunk driver’s car and a driver education car.

“[Sandy Hook] brought it all back and other times when we’ve lost students, over the years,” he said. “There’s no way to describe how it feels, how those teachers must feel, but it brings to mind how important it is to support people who are in place, during these times. These kinds of tragedies let you know how precious it is to have each day, to cherish our children and all the time we have with them.”

Both Connelly and Lawton noted that their districts have emergency response plans in place and that those plans are being re-evaluated, in the light of the Sandy Hook shootings.

“It’s one of those things we don’t want to talk about, but we have to talk about it,” Connelly said. “Every door I tried, walking around the district, was locked. We go over our [emergency response plan] every year, anyway, but this is an opportunity to take a look at it and say, yes, we are prepared, should anything happen.”

Lawton said that he places emphasis on relationships between students, staff and administration and that, as a new superintendent, he is making an effort to foster a community with the sense of togetherness he had in Holland, his last school district.

“When you have those tight relationships, you know your staff and you know your kids,” he said.

“You can see things and predict and you’re really there to support each other. I think we’re beginning to have that, in West Valley.”

Lawton also said that West Valley has a similar plan to the one that was enacted at Sandy Hook, that he said probably helped prevent “an even bigger tragedy” at that school.

“I reminded our staff that we do have a safety plan in place. It’s reassuring, to know that we are cognizant that we can’t prevent everything, but that people are thinking that way.”

The S-GI superintendent’s statement and a list of online resources are available on the school district’s website, www.springvillegi.org.

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