Though Friday’s school shootings in Connecticut were thousands of miles away, the tragedy saddened and shocked East Valley educators and parents as they shuddered to imagine something so horrific happening here in their classrooms, to their kids.
“Everyone has lots of connections with schools and the fact that they’re supposed to be one of our safe havens. The fact that someone can walk in and do this is mind-blowing. It’s so tragic. I think that’s why it affects everyone,” said Jaime Clemens, a counselor at Mesa’s Edison Elementary School. “We were crying about it here. Any life lost, but an innocent child?”
According to the Associated Press, a man opened fire Friday inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, about 60 miles northeast of New York City, where his mother worked as a teacher, killing 26 people, including 20 children, as youngsters cowered in their classrooms and trembled helplessly to the sound of gunfire reverberating through the building.
The killer, armed with two handguns, committed suicide and another person was found dead at a second scene, bringing the toll to 28, authorities said.
The attack, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 people dead in 2007.
Schools and organizations from the East Valley were quick to respond on Facebook.
“Every parent’s heart breaks today,” Chandler’s CTO Humphrey Elementary PTO posted. “As we hug our children a little tighter tonight, our thoughts are with the entire Sandy Hook Elementary community.”
Posted by the local Kids Need to Read organization: “Such a profoundly sad day. We extend our deepest sympathies and respect to the families of the victims in Newtown, CT, and pray for a peaceful future for all children.”
And, the Town of Queen Creek posted: “We are heartbroken by today’s horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary. Our hearts are with everyone affected by this devastating tragedy. Give your children an extra hug tonight.”
Higley Unified School District Superintendent Denise Birdwell issued a statement: “Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with the families of Newtown who lost loved ones in today’s shooting. We wish schools faced no such circumstances, but tragedies cannot be anticipated. We recognize that situations like this happen and we must do our best to be prepared. Times like these give us pause, and we reflect on our security systems to assure our continued vigilance in protecting our students, staff and faculty.”
Camille Casteel, superintendent of Chandler Unified School District, sent a letter to parents and guardians of students noting safety measures the district has in place and to reassure them that the safety of students and staff is the district’s No. 1 priority.
“We are anxious to review lessons learned from today’s terrible tragedy so that we can continue to be proactive,” Casteel wrote.
At the state capitol, Arizona schools superintendent John Huppenthal called a press conference where he told media that it’s up to parents to ensure that schools have threat assessment and violence prevention programs in place.
Huppenthal said the Connecticut shootings should send a message to parents, Capitol Media Services reported.
“In response to this, it would be appropriate for them to ask their school officials, ‘Have you gone through this training? Do you have a great relationship with your local police department?’” Huppenthal said.
Mesa Unified School District, the largest in the state with more than 62,000 students, prepares for an emergency and practices those plans, district spokeswoman Helen Hollands said.
“Being the largest district, with a significant school security department, we have comprehensive ongoing security plans in place and we have very comprehensive emergency plans in place,” she said.
Clemens said it’s important for parents and teachers to reassure children that they’re doing their best to watch over them.
“The most important thing is the constant reassurance that the adults in their lives will do everything we can to keep them safe,” she said. “It’s OK to talk to them about it. Ask them if they have questions … If you need to have that safe conversation 20 times, do it. Most kids will be OK with hearing the school is safe; parents will keep you safe. For other kids, it will fester because sometimes the unknown creeps in our heads.”
Clemens is in her ninth year as a counselor, but spent 14 years as a junior high teacher. She recommends parents of those older children take the opportunity to talk with them about things they may hear.
“We tell them, ‘If you hear somebody saying something, it’s a cry out for help. It’s your responsibility to let an adult know.’ I talk to kids about bullying. If you’re seeing something and an adult isn’t seeing it, tell them. If you hear a kid saying they’re going to bring a gun to school, report that. Kids are so concerned about being snitches. Sometimes they have information that an adult should hear, but they don’t do it. They’ll regret that. We need to talk about things and get help for people who need help,” Clemens said.
Tribune writers Michelle Reese and CeCe Todd, The Associated Press, and Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.