Massachusetts school children returned to classes Monday amid anxiety, some additional security and a hope for normalcy on the first full school day after the tragic Connecticut shootings.
On their first day back to school since the Newtown, Conn. massacre, some Boston students were greeted by increased police patrols, street workers, counselors and psychologists – all put in place to help them cope with the tragedy and to reassure them that schools are a safe place to be.
“What’s most important is that students maintain their routine and are safe and comfortable,” said Carol R. Johnson, Boston schools superintendent, at a press conference Monday morning. “To make sure that we help students stay focused on learning and also respond to any concern that may come up as a result of the situation in Connecticut.”
Principals met with teachers prior to the start of school Monday morning to review procedures and protocols on how to address violent events with students, particularly those in the elementary schools, Johnson said.
School administrators e-mailed flyers to parents over the weekend from the National Association of School Psychologists with tips on how to talk to children about violence. The same flyers were distributed to parents at schools Monday morning, Johnson said.
In Somerville, Friday's events were on the mind of Edite Gois of Somerville as she unloaded kids from a gold minivan at John F. Kennedy Elementary school.
"Everybody is scared," she said. "Every kid is talking about this, they know what happened and they are scared, too."
Gois, 50, transports children to school for Brazilian families in Somerville. She said security should be heightened at schools.
"Like at the airport," she said.
Deneen and William Scully walked their 10-year-old son to school Monday morning in Somerville. They explained Friday's shooting to their son over the weekend, but didn't go into too much detail with him, Deneen Scully said.
"We talked with him about it briefly and then we just kept the T.V. off," she said.
Somerville had two police officers in bright yellow jackets in front of the entrance of John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Somerville Monday, which is part of normal security at public schools in the city, police Chief Thomas Pasquarello said. There were no plans for increased security in Somerville because police already monitor the schools closely, Pasquarello said. Some of their measures include having police officers at entrances in the morning and afternoon, and a rotation of marked and unmarked cruisers patrolling school zones, he said.
"A lot of parents are happy to see to see police around this morning," he said.
In Hingham, officials at South Elementary School stepped up security slightly, locking side doors and closely watching front doors Monday as schools opened. A school official greeted students at the front door.
Karen Salon, a Hingham parent with a 13 year old boy, 10 year old girl, an 8 year old boy in Hingham Public Schools, said she was open and honest with her children about the tragedy, even letting them watch the President's address.
"My kids feel sad about the kids who were killed, but they didn't have any hesitation about going to school today and going about their lives."
In Needham, school officials and parents were striving for a normal day, after a planned early morning meeting among teachers and administrators to revisit security plans.
For Jay Moreschi, who walked with his kindergartender into Broadmeadow Elementary School in Needham, the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut weighed on his mind. A police car idled nearby.
“You just walk into school, and you see all the kids walking around the hallways. I must have seen 70 of them. It just makes you think, what makes me any different than someone walking in there that doesn’t belong there?’’ Moreschi said. “I see all the glass windows. What’s to stop somebody from coming in through the glass windows. It’s sad to think that way, but it’s almost like, it seems like Newtown is a similar community to Needham.’’
Over the weekend, Medford superintendent Roy Belson notifed parents that additional police and school security personnel would be on hand Monday. He said Medford would also "begin an upgrade of all our security cameras and electronic entry systems.''
"While our assessment is that our schools are safe, we have decided to take additional action steps to increase coverage and strengthen rules that will add an extra dimension to our security at all school buildings. We believe that these enhanced measures can be accomplished without compromising a conducive learning environment and a desirable school climate. However, of necessity, these actions will make it less convenient for entry and visitation to our school sites,'' Belson wrote.
In Boston, where police were expected to add patrols for a few days, school officials said they have good security in place.
Johnson said she is confident in the security systems already in place at the schools, but added that all of them will be reviewed in light of the massacre, including being buzzed in to a building and requiring people to sign in at main offices. Principals have also been asked to review all emergency drills, she said.
“Certainly we have procedures in place, as I think [Sandy Hook] did, so that teachers knew where to go, where to take kids, where to hide,” Johnson said. “But I think that none of us ever imagined ever having to use any of those procedures.
“This does cross a line that we have truly never seen before,” she added. “And it’s pretty traumatic for all of us to absorb.”
In Lexington, Superintendent of Schools Paul Ash said the district has been locking the doors 15-minutes after the start of school for the past two years after it received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools program.
But Ash said schools are not fortresses, and they are not prepared to stop someone who is prepared to die. Ash said that it sounds as if the gunman in Newtown shot his way into the building even though the doors were locked.
“I’m not going to kid you, what was really heartbreaking about what we saw in Newtown is it looks like they did everything right,” Ash said. "You could lock down your building, but if a person has a high enough powered weapon, they can blow a hole right through the glass."
Ash said Lexington used the federal grant to develop emergency plans for multiple scenarios, from a person with a weapon at a school to a hazardous materials incident in a building. Detailed blueprints of the schools were also made available electronically to emergency responders and staff were trained for emergency practices, he said.
But in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, Ash said school and public safety officials are taking another look at their security efforts to ensure they are doing everything they can.