School officials across the region on Monday calmed parents, counseled teachers, watched over students and reaffirmed safety protocols that will update as experts study how the unthinkable happened
Friday morning's tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was the latest and deadliest school massacre in U.S. history. The first was the 1989 attack at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, when drifter Patrick Purdy used an AK 47 to kill five children and wound 29 others.
Over the past five years, 131 shootings have occurred at schools, including many by students, according to a list on Brady Campaign.org.
"Once again, our world of public education has been rocked by the senseless tragedy in Connecticut," Newman-Crows Landing Superintendent Ed Felt said in an email to his staff over the weekend. After listing safety precautions, he added, "I believe that most students are not as interested in all of the details about our campus security measures as they are knowing someone truly cares about them and will do their best to protect them."
Modesto City Schools had a minimum day Friday before starting its three-week winter break, so by the time news of the shooting spree which occurred at 12:35 p.m. Eastern began to spread, most Modesto students were safe at home.
"It was a huge blessing," said Superintendent Pam Able. She said the district will spend time over the break examining strategies the 20-year-old killer used to get into the school grounds and scrutinizing facilities for potential weaknesses.
Many campuses in Modesto are fenced, with visitors allowed access only through the administrative office, where they must sign in and pass scrutiny of office staff.
Winter break also has begun for Sylvan, Patterson, Riverbank, Salida and Empire students. All the rest are in class until later this week.
Local singer Rachel Renae volunteered to go to schools and sing holiday tunes to cheer up classrooms, but schools she contacted in Turlock refused her offer. She was told that kind of campus access would require school board approval.
Turlock High holds fire drill
Turlock students on Monday took home letters advising parents to reassure kids and calmly answer any questions, but limit TV coverage of the tragedy.
Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said all schools have safety plans for crisis response and emergency procedures in place for fires, earthquakes, lockdowns and bomb threats.
As if to punctuate the point, Turlock High held a fire drill Monday morning. School visitors said students did not look concerned, just happy to be out of class.
Psychologists on hand
Other districts said they canceled any drills, not wanting to upset students who might not understand it was just practice, or panic parents with blaring alarms.
In Ceres, school psychologists offered strategies for principals and teachers to talk with any upset students and were on hand in case of any problems, said Jay Simmonds, Ceres Unified assistant superintendent of student support services.
"What we're seeing is many children don't know, especially at the elementaries," Simmonds said. The district decided against any schoolwide notice of the event, he said, but will watch students closely and handle issues individually.
At the 170-student Valley Home district northeast of Oakdale, where everyone knows basically everyone, safety is getting a new focus, said Superintendent and Principal Rolanda Desrosiers-Lewis.
"Both campuses will have classrooms locked, gates locked and offices which is a first for Valley Home," she said. Today, parents will get a note with the new procedures, as well as tips to help their children through the tragedy, Desrosiers-Lewis said.
"Even if we don't have the televisions on
they are hearing things at school," said Erin Nelson, executive director of Jessica's House in Turlock. The nonprofit organization is aimed at helping grieving children. "As parents, they need to hear these things from us first."
Nelson advised talking to children in simple terms, telling them the truth in a manner that's appropriate to their age and explaining that events such as the shooting in Connecticut are highly unusual. "Alongside the truth, you are going to be telling them what your child's school is doing to keep them safe and what you're doing," Nelson said.
Tips given in message
Parents in Keyes got an automated phone message Friday evening with many of the same tips. It also mentioned limiting children's exposure to news coverage and keeping family discussions reassuring, said Keyes Union Superintendent Cynthia Schaefer.
Schaefer said she spent Monday afternoon with principals, identifying any site vulnerabilities and brainstorming safety measures.
At the Merced River School District north of Atwater, Superintendent Helio Brasil said that in memory of lives lost at the Newtown school, there would be a moment of silence before Monday night's holiday program.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra contributed to this report.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.