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Schools across York County prepared for an emotional and uneasy return to class Monday in the aftermath of an elementary school massacre that took place 750 miles away but sent shockwaves of anguish throughout the nation.
Counselors and administrators at every campus were ready to comfort fearful and saddened students. Police officers stepped up visits to schools. Administrators were encouraged to review security measures and be on heightened alert.
Principals said it turned out to be a mostly smooth, typical school day, although they fielded a bevy of calls from parents with questions about school safety and suggestions for added security.
“They were just wanting to know their children are safe, and they were just wanting to talk to somebody,” said Tammy White, principal at Sunset Park Center for Accelerated Studies.
Some offered appreciation.
“There were a lot of encouraging emails saying, ‘Thank you for what you do,’” said Travis Howard, principal at Pleasant Knoll Elementary in Fort Mill.
Schools around the country enacted similar measures in the wake of the horrifying mass shooting on Friday that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Local school officials sent messages to families assuring them they take security seriously.
Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody sent an email to principals laying out a plan for this week: Offer counseling, let students and staff find ways to express concern for Newtown, offer parents advice on talking with children, be highly visible on campus, revisit crisis plans, “be relentless about following our safety procedures.”
At Belleview Elementary in Rock Hill, teachers avoided class discussions about the shooting.
“There are lots of parents who have shielded children from this and we don’t want to overstep our bounds,” Principal John Kirell said.
But teachers kept an eye out for students’ talking about it, especially children who misunderstood what happened.
A Belleview counselor talked with a first-grade boy who thought police had done the shooting, because he had seen police on TV holding guns, Kirell said.
Rock Hill Police officers stepped up school visits.
“It was to make the families, students and administrators – everybody – feel safe and comfortable,” police spokesman Lt. Brad Redfearn said.
The morning got off to a bumpy start for Clover schools after a fiber-optic line was cut, shutting off telephone service at several campuses.
“Horrible timing, I bet a lot of parents will go pick their children up early to be safe,” a parent wrote on the district’s Facebook page under a post announcing the problem. The sentiment was echoed in other comments.
Phones were down for about an hour and a half, but every campus has a red emergency phone that’s always in service, Clover schools spokesman Mychal Frost said. And Clover Police went to several campuses to exchange cell phone numbers with principals while the phones were down.
Schools in Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Clover and York run drills to prepare for crises, including earthquakes, fires and high winds.
Lockdown drills simulate a threat nearby or on campus.
Educators tell children about the drills in advance, White said, but they’re careful not to say that lockdown drills prepare them in case a gunman steps on campus.
“You can’t stress enough that it is a drill,” White said, but “we would not go into detail about what the threat is.”
Fort Mill educators went through a day-long crisis management course over the summer in which they simulated a gunman on campus.
“It was very real,” Howard said. “It was very in-depth.”
The Rock Hill school board will vote soon on whether to add new safety measures, Moody said, based on findings from a recent safety audit conducted across the district.
Moody said Monday she was not ready to discuss those recommendations.
Educators said the news from Newtown hit them especially hard.
In her email to staff, Moody wrote:
“Like many of you, I have stayed glued to my television trying to hear the latest news on exactly what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Believing if I could just get the details, I would know what to do to protect our children from this happening in our community.
“And yet, the more I know, the more I realize how life can change on a moment’s notice. We are still vulnerable despite everything we do.”