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A Moment of Silence and Safety Reviews in City Schools Post-Newtown

Monday, December 17, 2012 - 01:33 PM

At P.S. 161 in Harlem, classes held a moment of silence today to commemorate the 20 children and six staffers killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday. Principal Pamela Price Haynes said some students read poems.

At the Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School in Queens, Principal Anthony Armstrong said the question of the day in morning announcements was replaced by a moment of silence.

At the Neighborhood School in the East Village, Principal Milo Novelo sent a letter to families over the weekend suggesting that they limit their children's exposure to the media coverage of the tragedy, while stating that Monday would be a normal school day. But he said teachers would reassure children with concerns and questions, "without overemphasizing the details or overplaying the conversation" and that social workers and the guidance counselor will be available as needed.

Some teachers planned to wear green and white, the Sandy Hook elementary school colors. And a Bronx middle school teacher, Dena Simmons, tweeted, “Today’s tragedy is a calling for mental health care reform & a need to address the socioemotional health of students, not just what’s tested.”

Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent a letter, signed by the presidents of the unions representing city teachers and supervisors, giving guidance to school staffers:

"As school resumes today, it is important to offer solace and support to your colleagues so we can be strong enough to take care of our students," it stated. "If children want to talk about what happened, schools should provide a safe place to have those conversations. Please avail yourself to your school's guidance counselors, school social workers, or school psychologists, who can offer guidance for supporting our students and staff."

Reviewing Safety Procedures

The letter also encouraged schools staffers to take care of themselves and to be "watchful for signs of stress, fear, or anxiety in your students. As necessary, please alert the mental health professionals in your school who can assist those in need."

The city asked every school community to review visitor control procedures as well as the General Response Protocols, which cover shelter-in, lockdowns, and evacuations.

Department of Education spokeswoman Erin Hughes said, "Our normal safety protocols and procedures are in place and we have been in constant communication with the NYPD and their School Safety Division."

The city's 5000 school safety agents are managed by a division of the NYPD, supplemented by 200 police officers. There are agents at the entrance to every one of the city's roughly 1200 buildings housing 1750 public schools. Metal detectors are at 88 school buildings - mostly high schools.

Visitors to all public schools must present ID and sign in when they arrive. Safety drills are conducted to prepare school staff and students for different emergencies including lockdowns.

But some schools are more relaxed than others, and allow parents to drop off very young children without signing in every time.

What Parents are Saying

Parents listening to WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show today sent in comments debating how much to tell young children about the tragedy.

Dawn Emsellem wrote, "My 3 kids are all under 7. I'm not bringing it up unless they hear about it from their friends. They're too young to process this."

Deirdre Basile added, "Told my 10 year old because we live 15 minutes away from Newtown - she would hear about it. I explained to her that someone who was mentally ill went into a school and hurt teachers and children. It's very sad and scary, but we and her teachers and principal are doing everything we can to keep her safe and she has nothing to worry about. To me, the most important thing is modeling by example - I was calm and reassuring. If one behaves anxious and worried about it, the children will pick up on that. And left the door open in case she has any other questions or concerns. I left out the more horrific details - like the ages and number of children killed.

A teacher of young children in Rutherford, NJ wrote in about what she planned for her school today. Julia Marie Guthrie said, "Ideally, I won't have to address this at all because they won't know about it, but little ears always hear things-via TV, siblings or adult conversations."

She recalled this piece of advice from Mr. Rogers:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

The United Federation of Teachers posted links for coping with traumatic events. For children and parents; for students and teachers.

Here is the full text of the letter by Chancellor Walcott, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Ernest Logan:

Dear Colleagues,

The horrific tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday is especially troubling to those of us who dedicate our lives to children. We grieve for the families of the 20 schoolchildren and six educators who lost their lives and feel compassion for the students and staff who witnessed this event. We are humbled by the heroism of the Sandy Hook educators who sought to shield their students from harm, which in some instances cost them their own lives.

As school resumes today, it is important to offer solace and support to your colleagues so we can be strong enough to take care of our students. If children want to talk about what happened, schools should provide a safe place to have those conversations. Please avail yourself to your school's guidance counselors, school social workers, or school psychologists, who can offer guidance for supporting our students and staff.

In addition, resources are posted on the Principals’ Portal as well as on the Guidance and Teacher pages on the DOE web site. You can also refer to the University of Maryland's Center for School Mental Health resources for dealing with traumatic events in schools. Especially in the days ahead, please be sure to take care of yourself, and be watchful for signs of stress, fear, or anxiety in your students. As necessary, please alert the mental health professionals in your school who can assist those in need.

We are also asking every school community to review their visitor control procedures as well as the General Response Protocols, which cover shelter-in, lockdowns, and evacuations.

The Department of Education, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, and the United Federation of Teachers are working together to make sure that our schools are safe and that staff and students have the support they need to move forward following this tragic event.

Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Sandy Hook Elementary School community.

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