Connecticut shootings recall Walpole school trauma
It was on a Friday morning last February when a Walpole Middle School eighth-grader shot himself in the school cafeteria.
The school went into lockdown, and the boy, who survived but was in serious condition, was flown by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.
That was the first thing Fall Mountain superintendent Debra Livingston thought of when she heard about the shootings that killed 26, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
"Of course when you hear something as senseless as this attack, it takes us back to the time of our situation," Livingston said Friday afternoon. "This is so senseless and so tragic that innocent children could be affected by this - innocent children and innocent families. We're very saddened by it, and our thoughts and prayers are with them."
The shooting at Walpole Middle School took place just before winter break, but counseling services for the entire community were made available at the school the following day and continued throughout winter break.
"We were able to provide services to those families over winter break, and more intensive services resumed as the kids returned," Livingston said.
Intensive counseling was available for several weeks at school following the shooting.
Students were allowed to eat in their classrooms or return to the cafeteria if they wanted to.
"If they wanted to eat in the cafeteria, if they wanted to go down with friends, there were always adults there to support them," Livingston said.
A cafeteria mural that had begun as an art project before the shooting resumed, and counseling availability became a permanent resource.
"It will be always," Livingston said.
Livingston was not in her office Friday morning. She attended a commissioner's meeting in Concord and learned of the Connecticut elementary school shootings on her drive home.
When she returned home, she contacted all of her school principals and arranged counseling support to be available at all district schools on Monday morning, knowing students would return after the weekend knowing about what took place in Newtown.
"There is a concern that, as kids come back on Monday, that we have people that are there to support them, so every kid is supported with counseling or whatever they need," she said.
The school district includes five communities - Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole - in which many students, parents and staff are connected.
Following the February shooting, Livingston said, all school lockdown procedures were reviewed and improved.
"We have gone through safety meetings. We've had de-briefings with our local law enforcement agencies and our first responders," Livingston said. "We had a very good procedure in place before, but we also knew that we can continue to learn and keep our schools as safe as we possibly can.
"There are not any big changes, but what we have done is change how we practice our procedures."
Now all local emergency responders are included in the annual procedure review, in which a mock lockdown is enacted, she said.
Staff and administrators had always had these annual mock lockdowns to review and improve procedures, but by including local emergency responders, the district is building relationships with the emergency responders, making sure they are familiar with the layout of the different schools. The district also has welcomed feedback from the emergency responders, aiming to detect problems in a mock setting and address those problems before another real-life situation arises.
The relationship between emergency responders and school officials has been very constructive, Livingston said, adding that the community as a whole has been especially supportive since last February's shooting.
"We always knew we had a very tight community, a very caring community, and they just proved it to us over and over again," Livingston said.
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Meghan Pierce may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.