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Local, state officials reflect and react to school shooting

By Joe Beck

Phone calls and e-mails from all over the United States started tumbling into the Shenandoah County Public Schools offices on Friday, all of the messages expressing sorrow and sympathy about the nightmarish shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Superintendent B. Keith Rowland said Monday that school officials have spent part of their time since then replying to the well-intentioned messages that had mixed up Sandy Hook Elementary School in Strasburg with its tragic namesake in Newtown, Conn.

"We tell them 'we're not the ones you're trying to get in touch with,'" Rowland said.

Schools in Shenandoah County and others throughout the region were open and operating normally Monday, but the shockwaves from the deaths of 28 people in Connecticut could still be felt here.

As a precautionary measure, Rowland asked for extra law enforcement officers from the towns and sheriff's offices to work the schools this week.

"It's strictly an attempt on our part to be proactive as opposed to be reactive," Rowland said. "And to ease some of the tension students may be feeling. It's never an easy thing. We all hurt when something like that happens."

Rowland said a safety committee that meets periodically to review lockdown procedures will be reconvened after Jan. 1.

Student safety weighed on the minds of law enforcement and school officials throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley Monday, the first full day of classes since a lone gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and killed 26 students and educators before killing himself.

In Warren County, school officials spoke with the sheriff's office in the aftermath of the shootings Friday. Greg Drescher, assistant superintendent for instruction, said school administrators met with a staff psychologist to assemble information for parents on how to talk to their children about news of a mass shooting in a school.

Some of that information has been posted on the school's website at http://www.wcps.k12.va.us by clicking on a link: "A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope -- Tips for Parents and Teachers."

Drescher said school officials were planning to notify parents by phone Monday night about the information posted on the website.

He urged parents to contact the school for help if a child is worrying about whether he or she is safe in school.

"If they see something going on, if a child is very upset about this, we'll try to support that child at school and give parents resources so they can deal with it," Drescher said.

Warren County Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron said his agency was maintaining its normal deployment of school resources officers. McEathron said everything at the schools appeared normal Monday.

The Connecticut shooting lent new urgency to talks that began a few months ago between Winchester school and law enforcement officials about emergency preparedness.

Lauren Cummings, Winchester city police community relations specialist, said Chief Kevin Sanzenbacher and Superintendent Ricky Leonard met after the Newtown shooting on Friday, the latest in a series of such meetings they have conducted in developing a plan of action for school emergencies.

"We hope a similar situation will never happen here, but by working with our partners in the community, we can make sure we do everything possible to ensure we are fully prepared to deal with any situation that may threaten our children and our community," Sanzenbacher said in a news release.

Superintendent David Sovine of the Frederick County Public Schools posted a message on the school system's Web site asking parents to "talk to your children about what has occurred, as appropriate, and assure them of the effort that we all take to keep them safe at school and in our community."

Steve Edwards, the school system's coordinator of policy, records management and communications, cited safety audit teams that visit buildings annually as one of several precautions taken to keep students safe.

Edwards said parents should remember that schools can help answer parents' questions about school safety and how to talk to their children about it.

"By all means they should reach out to our school counselors and staff, and they would be happy to help work with them," Edwards said.

In Richmond, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell announced a statewide review of school safety and an effort to determine the needs of schools from elementary classrooms through colleges and universities.

McDonnell also announced the creation of a new position in the Department of Criminal Justice Services that will focus on school and campus safety problems.

In a news release, McDonnell recalled his own daughter's experience at the Virginia Tech campus during the 2007 shootings.

"As a parent whose daughter was locked down at Virginia Tech during the most recent shooting there that took the life of Officer Deriek Crouse, I acutely understand the desire of parents to know that their child's safety is the top priority at all educational institutions at every level," McDonnell said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com


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