It was dark and raining on Monday morning. As children and parents shuffled into Sag Harbor Elementary School they passed a flag lowered to half staff in remembrance of the 26 people, including 20 first graders, who were killed in a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday.
For local educators, school administrators and board members, the tragedy brought renewed focus on school security planning. It also raised questions of how to ensure parents feel safe in sending their children to school in the wake of such a heart-wrenching event.
In Sag Harbor, Dr. Carl Bonuso, the school district’s interim superintendent, said the administrative team and board of education worked over the weekend to make sure parents had resources at their fingertips that showed them how to help support children through the aftermath of this tragedy.
In a letter sent by email blast to members of the Sag Harbor School District community, and also posted on the school’s website, the district suggested parents limit exposure to television, newspapers and Internet coverage in an effort to protect children from being overwhelmed by what happened in Newtown.
Being extra comforting and present was another tool school officials suggested, and looking out for behaviors that would suggest they have been impacted by the tragedy was also suggested.
“Make sure they know there are people in charge who are helping to keep them safe,” reads the letter. “Children need to know that things are okay and that there are adults in charge who are helping to make things right and keep them safe.”
“Age appropriate conversations will be taking place in our schools tomorrow and in the coming days,” the letter continued. “Be assured that our school leaders and staff will continue to take every measure necessary to protect your children and as always, provide ongoing support and guidance to your family. Together, the school and home acting in partnership, can weather any storm or tragedy because of our mutual love and devotion to the children of our school family.”
On Monday morning, Dr. Bonuso said the elementary school had its traditional morning program, and a moment of silence was held for the victims of the shooting in Newtown. However, said Dr. Bonuso, the focus of school administrators was to ensure parents and students felt safe and knew teachers and staff were available for children to talk to about their feelings.
“I think a lot of parents did have conversations with their children at an age appropriate level,” said Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone. “What I saw [Monday] morning was what I hoped to see — kids came in, we had a great morning program and when I walked around at 9:!5 a.m. the students were in their classrooms and off to a great start.”
“I think the important thing we spoke of as a staff is we need to be reassuring and be aware children deal with these events in very different ways. Some exhibit regressive behaviors, others are more withdrawn. And we have to know how to be there for everyone.”
“By the middle of the program and by the time we got to class, the goal was to move on in a positive way,” said Dr. Bonuso.
Of course, ensuring the comfort of parents and the student body was not the only agenda item that emerged from Friday night’s tragedy. The Sag Harbor School District will also begin to audit its security, with a goal of making appropriate upgrades where necessary, said Dr. Bonuso.
Likely, he added, the administration will recommend the Sag Harbor School District Board of Education hire a professional — whether through Eastern Suffolk BOCES or a private firm — to assess the school’s security.
The school does have video cameras, inside and outside the building, he said, and part of the review will look at if the district needs more cameras and if they are located in the right spots.
“One thing we have talked about is in addition to having all our doors locked and a single entry point, is to try and crack down on ways that could be compromise,” said Dr. Bonuso.
At the Bridgehampton School, principal Jack Pryor said the school was mindful to only discuss the incident with age appropriate students or those who needed comfort.
“The fifth to ninth grades were the most shaken,” he said. “They are old enough to know something very bad happened and young enough to be afraid.”
The fifth through 12th grades had an assembly where they discussed school security and walked through what a lock down would entail. A safety meeting was also held among school faculty, he added.
Like Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton is re-evaluating its security system and is considering a buzzer system as a new level of protection for students.
“We have work to do,” he said.
On Monday night, during the Sag Harbor School Board meeting Dr. Bonuso noted school security is certainly on everyone’s mind. School staff, he added, are required to review and sign off on the school’s safety plan each year.
He added that it is important that people pay attention to the malady behind this senseless tragedy, taking a closer look at those who feel isolated, depressed, angry or disenfranchised and identify them while they can still be helped.
Board member Chris Tice suggested an outside assessment may be worthwhile, noting there is a disparity between the open culture the school attempts to cultivate and security. Feedback from the community is also important, she said.
Board member Mary Anne Miller added she has spoken with some parents who have suggested a public workshop. Parents, she said, may see things the board does not and would be worthwhile to bring into the conversation.
Noyac resident Elena Loreto suggested safety tips should be taught to young students, for example, letting them know they should not open up school doors for outside people, even relatives.
Tice read a letter from Sag Harbor resident and parent Jean Cowen who raised a concern about the security breach created through the elementary school’s morning program.
On Tuesday, a meeting at Hampton Bays Middle School brought school districts, including Sag Harbor, town officials and police together to talk about school safety and how everyone can work together for each other’s benefit.
“Our emphasis was on identifying what we do well, what we can do better and figuring out cooperative action plans or steps we can take while sharing everything, from training to resources,” Dr. Bonuso said.
Communication, reaching the school community as quickly as possible after a traumatic event, and being able to partner in that respect was discussed, said Dr. Bonuso, as was creating workshops for teachers and administrators.
The conversation, he added, will continue.
Regardless, Dr. Bonuso said in the school buildings, this week the school community has focused on celebrating its students and the holiday season.
“Any research out there tells us part of dealing with a crisis is to acknowledge feelings of anxiety, anger or sadness. But you are hoping for a return to normalcy as quickly as possible,” he said. “We wanted to give them a transition to their week off with some satisfying and joyous moments celebrating the holidays.”