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Changes felt one year after Sandy Hook massacre

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The anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre marks a year full of unanswered questions about why someone murdered 27 people, including 20 young children and six school administrators.

During that time, some schools have made some big changes to their security systems, and others have practiced lockdown drills. Above all, teachers have strived to make their students feel as safe as possible.

Last Dec. 14, 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into the Newtown, Conn. school and killed 20 students and six educators with semiautomatic rifles before he committed suicide at the school. He shot his mother to death at their Newtown home beforehand.

All of the children killed were 6 or 7 years old.

Unfortunately, the Sandy Hook tragedy wasn’t the first in an American school.

“I’ve been in an administrative role for many years, and I wish I could say it was the first time I heard of something like this happening or the first time I faced these feelings,” said Terry N. Fralick, superintendent of the Watertown City School District. “It was harder to hear about it because the students were so young.”

Mr. Fralick said that over the course of his career he has had to try to explain other attacks, such as the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, when two seniors killed 12 students and a faculty member in Littleton, Colo. Such violence, as well as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, brought a new emphasis on security measures, and lockdown drills were put in place.

“There’s just no way to make sense of it,” Mr. Fralick said.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, there were calls for gun reform. People wanted an answer as to why and someone to blame.

“When the news first broke there was clearly a sense of tragedy and more news kept coming in,” Lowville Central School Superintendent Cheryl R. Steckly said. “It was such a terrible event it’s hard to think about how that affected the school and really the whole community.”

At Canton Central School, Superintendent William A. Gregory said the events at Sandy Hook had a direct impact on the district’s safety plan.

“Before Sandy Hook we had no prohibitions for people coming to campus,” Mr. Gregory said. “After Sandy Hook we limited access to our campus to three main entrances.”

He said the change represented a big cultural shift for the district and accelerated implementation of a capital improvement project to upgrade security.

“We had the new security system in within weeks,” Mr. Gregory said. “There’s a camera outside of the doors, and to get in visitors have to press a button and identify why they’re here.”

Mrs. Steckly said the district’s safety procedures at Lowville were strong, limiting access to the campus through locked doors and a buzzer system, but there was a need to reassure district members and students.

“It really put us on a higher level of concern. We certainly have more awareness and alertness to being safe,” Mrs. Steckly said. “We felt our security systems were adequate; we just wanted to make sure we were vigilant with our training.”

Initially local law enforcement made their presence felt at the district’s school by parking a police vehicle at schools in the morning and increasing the number of times they drove around the school, Mrs. Steckly said.

“It was mostly to make people feel more comfortable,” Mrs. Steckly said.

The security system at Lowville Central School includes limited access to the school. Visitors must be buzzed in and register at the office.

Mrs. Steckly said that after Sandy Hook, it wasn’t just about increasing security, but also about making sure to address fears people felt.

“It was such a terrible event, it’s hard to imagine how it affected the whole community, not just the school,” Mrs. Steckly said.

Meredith A. Connell, a sixth-grade teacher at General Brown Central School, said many of her students had an idea of what happened but there was a lot of uncertainty.

“There were a lot of questions. Some were quick answers of what to do in that situation and what to do next, and then the not-so-quick questions like ‘why did this happen,’” Mrs. Connell said.

As a teacher, Mrs. Connell directed many of the deeper questions back to the student’s families.

“Parents know what’s best for their children and have experience with how much their kid can understand and how to talk to them,” Mrs. Connell.

Canton Elementary School Principal Joseph D. McDonough said that though the students had more and more questions after Sandy Hook, school officials worked to reassure the students they were safe and also fielded questions from the parents.

“It was a very emotional time, and there was so much coverage of what happened, we made a conscious effort to not be the bearers of information for the kids,” Mr. McDonough said. “Overall, the important message was to make kids feel safe.”

As a parent, Mrs. Connell said her sons Gabriel and Shawn had different understanding of what happened.

“Gabriel was in the fifth grade. He knew what happened, he knew that kids had died and that hit him a lot. He was worried about everyone else, especially his little brother, who was in pre-kindergarten,” Mrs. Connell said. “Shawn, my 4-year-old, said, ‘Mommy I don’t understand.’ I had to tell him that someone made a bad decision and hurt other little boys and girls.”

Lara T. Abreu, the mother of two young Sherman Elementary School students, Sienna, 9, and Luca, 7, said immediately following the massacre her children didn’t really talk about it.

“Our kids were so young, we tried to have an open discussion about questions they had, but we didn’t talk in depth about what exactly happened,” Mrs. Abreu said.

It wasn’t until emergency drills were held at the school did Mrs. Abreu notice the difference in how her children interpreted the incident.

“(Luca) was almost looking at it like an act during the day. My daughter, on the other hand, asked why we do this and what we do if a shooter comes into school,” Mrs. Abreu said. “They wanted to know why there was more security at the schools.”

Mr. McDonough said after security changes were implemented at Canton the students and staff adjusted to the changes well.

“It becomes a new reality, I don’t think people think about it as much; it’s just how things are run,” Mr. McDonough said.

Mrs. Abreu said although there are still many more questions than answers, her children and others in the north country have a good support system in their schools.

“We had to say there are some bad people in the world and try to explain why they want to exit the world by doing damage to other people,” Mrs. Abreu said. “This was a very unpredictable phenomenon; I think there was very little anyone could have done to stop it. I personally disagree with the blame thing aside from the shooter.”

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