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Making sense of Newtown

A gunman slaughters 28 in Newtown, Conn. including 20 children. The questions are profound: How do we confront evil? How do we grieve and heal in the face of unspeakable horror? How do we protect our innocents? In Lodi and Galt, as in communities across America, educators and faith leaders are doing their best to provide answers.

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Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:09 am, Tue Dec 18, 2012.

As students returned to classrooms on Monday, local schools planned to answer questions from students and discuss safety plans following the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead.

In Galt and Lodi public schools, counseling was available for both students and staff having trouble coping. Teachers in most Lodi Unified School District elementary schools reviewed their safety plans. And parents received letters and phone calls discussing campus safety and how the schools are reacting to Newtown.

"We are not talking to kids in a structured way about this, but if people are having a difficult time, then we will get assistance to them," Lodi Unified Superintendant Cathy Nichols-Washer said.

Reese Elementary School Principal Gary O'Dell said his teachers focused on keeping a normal routine and did not mention what happened to younger classes unless students asked questions. For older students, teachers had a discussion time where they answered questions, reassured the students and discussed why safety drills are important.

When talking with kids, O'Dell said it important to create an open, supportive environment, use words and concepts the children can understand and repeat the key points.

"Our teachers acknowledged (the students') thoughts and feelings and let them know that the likelihood of it happening here is very slim, and they should not worry about it happening. But it still is important to be prepared," O'Dell said.

Galt Joint Union Elementary School District Superintendent Karen Schauer gave teachers a statement to read to students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

"When tragedies like this happen, it is very normal to feel shock and disbelief followed by a range of other emotions; for example, sadness for the victims, anger, confusion and worry for your own safety. It is normal that this may bring up emotional issues relating to loss, grieving and safety. We all handle situations differently, and if you need to, we have people on campus that you can talk to. We want to reassure you that you are safe here," the statement said.

More Galt elementary teachers elected to lock their classroom doors Monday, and some gates that are typically open were closed, according to Schauer.

In the Galt Joint Union High School District, Superintendent Matthew Roberts said there was also an emphasis on helping teachers and staff cope.

"When hearing stories like from this tragedy, you will always hear of the heroic efforts on the part of teachers. Staff will always ask what we can do to improve. ... I think this firms our resolve to ensure students are safe, and that they are learning," Roberts said in an email Monday. "Obviously though, we are deeply moved by the event."

Galt Pastor Rick Keiser worked tirelessly with other community pastors to develop a schedule to provide added counseling support at every school location through the elementary district's Pastors on Premises program, according to Schauer.

This counseling team helped to prepare employees before school started, and remained on campus to provide counseling support as needed. At the end of Monday, principals report a total of two students and one employee sought counseling support.

Roberts planned to send home a letter to Galt High School parents discussing safety. Schauer sent a phone message to parents on Friday.

Nichols-Washer also planned to send out a phone message to all Lodi parents Monday night talking about campus safety.

Preparing for the unthinkable

In Lodi, principals are reviewing their procedures with teachers this week to make sure everything is being followed correctly, Nichols-Washer said.

Each school site has its own plan that is reviewed at least yearly because there are always new hires, she said. The district plans to work with local law enforcement to see if extra procedures need to be put in place.

Nichols-Washer said it is also important that visitors and parents carefully follow campus rules.

"We are trying to be as proactive as we possibly can and make sure everyone is well aware of our procedures. Visitors on campus need to sign in at the office and wear a visitor's badge. Those things help, because that's what our folks will be looking for when people come to campus to pick up their children or volunteer in class," she said.

The Stockton schools in the district are also planning to hold a community meeting at 7 p.m. Jan. 16, 2013 at McNair High School, 9550 Ronald E. McNair Way. The meeting was in reaction to safety concerns from the shooting, Nichols-Washer said, but Stockton police and city officials will also discuss other community safety concerns, such as gang violence.

In Galt, superintendents at both school districts met with Police Chief William Bowen and Lt. Jim Uptegrove on Monday morning to discuss an upcoming safety drill that they have been planning, Roberts said. It is scheduled for spring.

On Monday, there were added police patrols on foot and by vehicle, including police volunteers or officers walking on school grounds and patrol cars driving through school parking lots or bus lanes.

"We are grateful for this added police support so that students and employees could begin their week in a more secure environment," Schauer said.

In addition, the Galt Police will join elementary principals for a face-to-face meeting today to help address questions or concerns related to safety and security, according to Schauer.

The high school district also invited the elementary district for training next month with Galt police for an active drill exercise to practice for the possibility of a hostile intruder.

"Each school site has practiced safety drills this year, and we are actively working with the Galt Police Department on more detailed simulations and scenarios, along with other local safety issues as they emerge," Roberts said.

Schauer believes the exercise will engage administrators in a drill involving effective communication, policy and practices.

In Lodi, teachers and staff also do drills throughout the year to prepare for fires, earthquakes and intruders on campus.

Lockeford Elementary School Principal Virginia Anderson said that during intruder drills, there is a code word that goes over the intercom letting teachers know there is someone on campus who could be dangerous.

Teachers then lock the doors, turn off the lights, close any blinds or curtains over the windows and move children to locations in the classroom where they are not visible from the window, whether that is under desks or a corner of the classroom.

Could it happen here?

At Millswood Middle School, Principal Sheree Flemmer said they did a live shooter drill on campus in November during a staff day when no students were at school.

"We practice as much as we can and try to account for any scenario," she said. "I'm not sure you can ever be prepared for what happened in Connecticut."

She said the main question from students is whether something like Newtown could happen here. Staff have been reminding students about the drills for fires, earthquakes and strangers on campus so everyone can be prepared if there is an emergency, Flemmer said.

"We thank them for taking those drills seriously so we are as prepared as we possibly can be for something like that," she said.

Parents should also echo the school's sentiment and know that safety is the staff's top priority, Flemmer said.

"Parents should answer any questions that they can and reassure their kids that school is a safe place for them to be, and the people who are in charge are also trained for their protection and to take care of them," she said.

Contact reporters Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com, Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com and Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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