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NH parents, school officials react to Connecticut shooting

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 14. 2012 11:39PM

MANCHESTER - Meghan Wilson couldn't get to Weston Elementary School quickly enough Friday afternoon.

As news about the Newtown, Conn., school shooting came over the car radio - the number of dead climbing with each update - every traffic light meant another delay until she could hug her daughter.

"The whole way here, I was starting to cry," said Wilson, while waiting for her daughter Caylin, 5, a kindergarten student at Weston. "I couldn't get here fast enough, to pick her up and hug her. It's just devastating, heart-breaking. Having a daughter in school, it just really hits home. I would never ... I would never think something like that could happen when you take your kid to school. Who would do that? Who could do that - to kids?"

Parents and school administrators across the city and state shared Wilson's reactions of shock and sadness Friday afternoon, as details emerged of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 27 people dead, including 20 school children. The body of the shooter, identified as Adam Lanza, was found by Connecticut State Police inside the school.

"I just saw it really quick on my way to pick up my nephew here," said Kaitlin Sloper of Merrimack, whose nephew, Deven, 6, attends Weston. "I just started crying as soon as I heard it. I can't even imagine what those parents are going through, two weeks before Christmas. It's just terrible."

Local school administrators were shocked when they heard news of the shootings.

"My gut reaction was I was absolutely sick to my stomach, that something like that could happen in a school that's a lot like this one," said Richard Norton, principal of the Green Acres Elementary School on Aurore Avenue in Manchester. "I was watching the coverage and thinking, 'God willing, this will never happen at a school under my watch.' My heart goes out to everyone involved, that whole community. It's an unthinkable tragedy."

"You watch the coverage, and you start thinking about the kids and the staff, what they were going through," said Lizabeth MacDonald, principal of Weston Elementary. "I can't imagine it. You want kids to feel safe and secure when they are here."

"There's no real way to console parents when a tragedy like this occurs," said Michael O'Neil, head of school for the Mill Falls Charter School, the state's first public Montessori school. "We are all aware, in a school setting, that safety is the number one priority we provide. All our staff has training in dealing with emergency situations, though you never think it will be something like this. Parents trust us every time they place their children in our care. We take safety very seriously."

Mill Falls Charter School, which serves students in grades K-3, operates out of the Union Leader Corp. building in Manchester.

Gov. John Lynch issued a statement Friday regarding the shootings, saying, "Today's shooting in Connecticut, taking so many innocent lives, is a horrible tragedy. On behalf of the people of New Hampshire, our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have been wounded or killed, and to their loved ones."

There have been at least six incidents that led to the lockdowns of public schools in New Hampshire this year, including one last week in Goffstown. Police cruisers were dispatched to each school in Goffstown Friday during dismissal time.

"We want them to know we know what's going on," said Police Capt. Robert Browne, "and we want the kids to feel as safe as possible."

Browne said events such as those that unfolded in Connecticut underscore the need to keep students safe at all costs. Last week's lockdown of Maple Avenue Elementary School, prompted by a suicidal individual living in an apartment abutting school grounds, was an example of a good emergency plan in action, he said.

"You never, ever want to take less action than you should have," Browne said. "You always want to err on the side of caution."

Browne said because they are consistently practiced by students, lockdown exercises are easy to manage.

"If something goes wrong, those are the best practices to be sure the most lives will be saved," he said. "But those are unfortunate lessons that are learned from too many tragic school events."

Fifteen months ago the Greater Londonderry YMCA was placed on lockdown after a staffer spotted what appeared to be a man carrying a gun near the children's day camp. Around 150 children were locked inside the facility twice in the span of one week in August 2011, after witnesses saw the unidentified gunman, dressed in full camouflage, in the nearby woods. State and local police searched the area, but the man was never found.

Lisa Fitzgerald, branch director of the local YMCA, said Friday's incident in Connecticut brought back bad memories.

"I think it's important to have such precautions in place every hour, every day," Fitzgerald said. "Because you just never know."

Some administrators were already thinking about having counselors on hand to talk with students about the shootings, when they return to class on Monday.

"Given the timing of this, I think students will talk about it with their families over the weekend," said Norton. "But if they need to talk about it, we'll be there for them. We want them to feel safe."

"We will have staff available on Monday morning, should any students be upset over the incident and need adult support," said Scott Thompson, principal of Griffin Memorial Elementary School in Litchfield.

"We have a support staff, and they will be ready to deal with any grief issues we may see on Monday," said O'Neil. "They have every right to be concerned about their safety as children, and their parents as well. We need to be ready to assure them that this school, their school, is a safe place."

Parents outside Weston Elementary after school let out were more vocal.

"It was really hard to swallow when I first heard about it," said Jeff Thornton of Manchester, waiting to pick up his son, Owen, 5, a Weston kindergartener. "I read something about it online, and heard some more details in the car coming here. It's frightening when you are picking your child up from school and thinking about that situation, what those parents are going through. You send them here thinking this is the safest place in the world, your local neighborhood school. I was sitting in the truck listening to this, thinking, 'Is home schooling the route everyone should be taking?'"

As a crossing guard stationed on Hanover Street, Kathy Nault of Goffstown is charged with keeping students safe every school day. She was stunned by the news of the shootings.

"I have to say, I was sick to my stomach," she said. "A lot of parents send their kids off to school in the morning, thinking it's a safe place, and then they head out to work thinking they'll see them at the end of the day. Those parents won't. I can't even begin to think what they are going through. It's hard to put into words - I don't have them to describe the disgust. These days you have to treasure every minute you have with someone, and always look over your shoulder."

"I don't know how someone could just do that ... go into a school and start shooting kids, little kids," said Wilson. "An elementary school. At Christmas. It's just awful."


New Hampshire Union Leader correspondents April Guilmet, John Quinn, Meghan Pierce and Kathy Remillard contributed to this report.

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