Surry County and Mount Airy City schools staff as well as local law enforcement officials remain vigilant in an effort to soothe tensions following the Dec. 15 slaying of 26 students and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct.
Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson is having patrolmen check on schools more frequently for the near future. He said manpower and the number of schools served dampens a larger presence. He said the high level of cooperation between county and city schools with law enforcement has allowed for lockdown scenarios to be practiced.
“I believe cooperation has served us very, very, very well. We actually do live unannounced lockdown drills,” explained Atkinson. “We did some at the first of this year. Nobody knows when we will walk in and say lock down this school. Then we go and check to see if procedures were followed. I think this has given us an advantage. We do these drills in schools all the way from elementary to high school.”
“We have safe campuses,” said Mount Airy School Superintendent Dr. Gregory Little. “We continually review our procedures, policies and plans in regards to this and we will continue to do this in the days and weeks ahead. We’ll do what we have to do to be sure they are as safe as they can possibly be. We’d do this even without a tragedy in Connecticut.”
Atkinson pointed out drills like this make sense. Procedures for tornadoes and weather-related disasters have been practiced for years.
“People react the way they are trained,” said Atkinson. “While we cannot guarantee anything like this will never happen, having this training gives us a good chance to save as many as possible.”
Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Ashley Hinson told parents in a message communicated via telephone that he realized the anxiety the shooting had caused on the part of students, school staff, parents, law enforcement, government officials and the community.
“All of us put the safety and well-being of our children first and all of us do everything possible to assure their safety and we work together to do all we can to prevent such an event,” said Hinson. “I have spoken with Sheriff Atkinson and he and I want to assure you that we have a plan for every school and we practice the plan regularly just like we do fire drills. We do all we can and we pray that nothing like what happened in Newtown will ever happen here, but we know it can happen everywhere.”
Hinson said school staff is prepared to help with the psychological and emotional issues of students and parents, and if parents need to speak with someone at school about this, they were not to hesitate to contact them.
Mount Airy Police Department Information Officer Lt. Kelly Hiatt reported the moment the department heard about the slayings patrols at city schools were beefed up using any sworn officer in addition to the regular patrol officers on the beat. Hiatt said this department plans on continuing this for the near future.
Surry County Emergency Services Director John Shelton said local schools had done an excellent job in controlling points of entry to schools and mounting appropriate surveillance and detection cameras. He said county and school staffs do an excellent job of identifying anyone who comes on their campuses. All the schools have systems in place where visitors have to check in, be photographed and wear identification badges.
“They are excellent all across our schools at quickly identifying persons who are on their campus,” said Shelton. “You couldn’t ask for better cooperation with public safety agencies than we have with county and city schools. What scares me is it (the Sandy Hook shootings) happened in a small community like our own. At best, what we can do is to have security issues announced and make sure we address what is happening.”
Shelton agreed with sociologists who have likened the effects of such traumatic acts to throwing a rock in a pond. The waves continue out from the event and affect a much wider area. He said the nation is at the beginning of a long process where not only victims’ parents and first responders and law enforcement in the Newtown area will be affected, but the country at large.
“We can try to help children cope with this by explaining bad things do occur, but they are safe and we’ll do our best to remain safe,” said Shelton. He said long-term effects will be experienced by first responders, fire, rescue and police on the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“Anybody who has any heart when you see this,” continued Shelton. “It touches everybody not only those directly affected by the tragedy.”
Surry County Schools psychologist Randy Mays stressed the need for parents to really make a point of being there to spot and answer any anxiety their children may have.
“The main thing is to be honest with them when they ask you about this,” said Mays. “Stick to the facts. Don’t embellish or speculate. This tragedy is big, but don’t start by emphasizing this. I would also suggest limiting the amount of time they are watching television in the short term so they do not become overwhelmed with the news coverage.”
Mays pointed out studies indicating young children who had watched continuous coverage of the 911 attack came to believe the attack was happening every day not just once.
“Just try to reassure them about the safety of our schools. Point out that schools have lockdown drills so people know what to do. I think it’s important parents make sure they are calm and focused not upset, because children will take a cue from you.”
He said parents could further help children who wanted to talk about this by telling them people react in many different ways to things like this and it’s OK to be upset, for instance.
“The biggest thing is spending time with them. Keep a normal routine but give them a little more reassurance with an extra hug or leaving that light on at night if they feel they need it,” said Mays. “Another big thing right now is to monitor your child … if they have had a loss or if this event seems to trigger something like they aren’t eating or sleeping.”
Mays said professional counselors and resource persons are available in all schools and can help parents who feel overwhelmed as well as students. He encouraged parents to contact schools to find out about resources for them.
“It’s the holidays and that alone serves as a great time to turn the TV off and spend some time together listening,” said Mays. “A lot will depend on how much children were exposed to this.”
Mays said that holidays in general can be a time of great stress for parents and families who have experienced loss.
“If parents are overwhelmed, we’re always there. We can talk with them and get them resources to help,” said Mays.
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.