Some parents of Lee’s Summit school children faced a different task as school resumed from a weekend break.
And school administrators faced the same task.
Only days have passed since a gunman opened fire at an Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. but the reverberation of that heartbreak nearly halfway across the country could be felt in Lee’s Summit.
Area schools already had in place crisis plans, but after the Newtown incident Dec. 14 in which 20 children and six adults were gunned down inside an elementary school, schools here immediately began reviewing their policies and procedures to make sure they have sound preparation in place during emergency situations that may occur on school grounds.
“We’re going to be going back and reviewing it and making sure all T’s are crossed and all I’s are dotted,” Sarah Coates, a spokeswoman for Summit Christian Academy in Lee’s Summit, said Dec. 17 of the school’s safety procedures. “The safety and security of our students is first and foremost for us.”
For some parents, the message to their children was clear: School is still a safe place.
“First of all they didn’t seem to be anxious,” Debora Hale, a Lee’s Summit mother with two children in fifth and seventh grade, said of her kids. “I did tell them that they may notice that some of the safety procedures would change at school, but I wasn’t sure, but they might pay attention and listen closely if those procedures had changed in anyway…I reassured them that our school does have safety procedures in place.
“Sometimes you can’t explain why bad things happen to kids, but that I felt like we are as safe as we can be here and that their teachers and their school staff would do whatever they can to protect them if anything like that were to happen, but that it’s highly unlikely that anything like that would ever happen.”
Hale said she spoke with her children after Dec. 14’s shooting and asked if they had heard about the incident while at school. Hale’s fifth grade student had, but the seventh grader had no inkling of the events that unfolded.
“My seventh grade son had no awareness of it at all,” Hale said of the student at Pleasant Lea Middle School. Hale’s daughter attends Prairie View Elementary. “He was not told about it in anyway at school, I believe. I explained – because he had no knowledge of it – that there had been an incident at a school in Connecticut that was a long way away. I told him someone had entered the school with a gun and told him that there were many children that did not make it.
“My daughter understood. I believe she had already been told a little bit about it. I asked if they have questions about it and wanted to talk about it and at that time they didn’t want to talk about it. I did not let them watch any of the coverage on television because I wouldn’t be able to edit it before they saw it.”
Shortly after the nation was stunned by shooting, SCA officials sent out a statement in which head of school Linda Harrelson expressed sympathy for the Newtown community and extended prayers to the families affected.
“We cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak that all involved are experiencing,” the statement read. “We do know, however, that the Newtown community is in desperate need of our prayers at this most difficult time. Our school, like most other schools in the country, has established safety measures that we follow in a number of emergencies, including intruders in the building and/or on the grounds. While we take the safety of our students very seriously, we also acknowledge that ultimately our help and safety come from the Lord.”
In light of the shooting, SCA officials and their community partners – which include police and fire safety personnel – are digging deeper into a comprehensive crisis response plan that they just revised this year, Coates said.
“As a school we have asked our faculty, staff and parents to lift the families and school in Newtown up in prayer during this difficult time,” she said. “In terms of safety measures, our school has and will continue practicing emergency drills once per month. This includes our lockdown procedure and protocol with staff, faculty and students.”
In the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, the district’s policy on school safety is posted on its website. David McGehee, superintendent of the R-7 school district, sent out a letter Dec. 17 reassuring parents of students and staff that the district’s policy is reviewed annually and it states in part that maintaining a safe learning environment for all students and staff is a constant top priority at each school.
After the shooting incident in Newtown, McGehee said the district’s schools received some calls from a few concerned parents, but nothing over the top or out of the ordinary.
The district flew building flags at half-staff Dec. 17 and 18 to honor the victims of the shooting.
“Initially it was about responding to any concerns our buildings had,” McGehee said during a trip to the Journal’s offices Dec. 18 of conversations at the district level after the shootings. “Making ourselves available to our school principals about questions they had. We provided them some talking points to be sure that they were sharing factual information and not emotional kinds of things, which is important. We ourselves were trying to evaluate what was occurring halfway across the country to learn from it as much as we could.”
McGehee’s letter stated students and staff conduct regular drills on a variety of safety procedures, including natural disasters, fires and those related to the possibility of a crime at school. In addition, safety and security audits are conducted at R-7 schools.
“I think it’s a balance you are trying to find,” McGehee said of the district’s written response. “Of course right now no one would ever accuse you of overreacting – although somebody would because there are people on both ends of the spectrum. But, you are trying to find the balance of what’s overreaction that’s going to be deterrent to our mission of making sure the kids are safe and that we are actually learning and so on versus people who think we are insensitive to the fact that there is an issue here.
“Even though it didn’t happen in our community it needs to be discussed and we need to learn from it in our community. It’s not an easy thing to communicate. Trying to find that balance was a little bit of a challenge. We felt it was important to reiterate to people the things that we do to keep their kids safe.”
McGehee said as a parent and an educator, like many in the district are, they are sensitive to the tragic news coming out of Connecticut.
“It’s not about how much barbed wire you can string up or not having outdoor recess or having armed guards and things like that,” he said. “It’s more about having that conversation in our community that fosters good, open communication, people talking to one another when they have a concern, (and) us taking those concerns seriously and develop that good, positive culture in our schools. I think we work very hard to do that.”