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Sitka Schools: Stability, calm important after Conn. shooting

Students and staff walk through the hallway at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School on Monday. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)

Friday’s shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut has raised questions for teachers and parents across the country: How do you help children understand what happened, and how do you make them feel safe at their own school?

It’s a conversation taking place in many homes and classrooms this week, including those in Sitka. Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School, for example, sent home a letter with tips on how to talk about the tragedy. School district officials are meeting with police to review security procedures. Teachers, meanwhile, are trying to maintain a routine in the classroom, but also be responsive to students who might need to talk about what happened.

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Each week inside Room 11 at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School, teacher Margie Esquiro and her second-graders have a class meeting.

“… where we talk about classroom rules,” Esquiro said. “Being safe, being responsible, being respectful, school rules, bullying, anything that comes up.”

And on Monday, she showed up for work and decided that she would wait to see if any of her students mentioned what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn.

PBS: Resources for talking to children about scary events in the news.

“No one brought up the incidents that happened on Friday in Connecticut,” Esquiro said. “So, I thought, OK. And I had talked to a couple moms. Some families talked a lot about their children, and some didn’t. Some kids heard about it, and were totally oblivious. You just have to pay attention to the age of the kids.”

Monday’s conversation, she said, was much more general – about appropriate friendships, and getting along with other people. But at Keet, and at many other schools, students and staff have talked about safety before.

“We practice lock-down drills at every one of our buildings,” said Steve Bradshaw, superintendent of schools in Sitka.

He says the one of the drills just happened Friday at Sitka High School. The only exception, he said, is at Baranof Elementary School, which houses kindergarten and first grades.

“At Baranof, we don’t practice with the students in the building, just because we’re concerned about the maturity of the students at that level,” Bradshaw said. “But we do practice with the teachers there.”

Bradshaw says police have stepped up patrols around Sitka’s five school buildings, and that principals and police will meet on Tuesday to discuss security procedures.

Back at Keet Gooshi Heen, Principal Casey Demmert is sitting on the stage in the lunchroom.

“We are kind of toward the tail end of lunch. Fifth graders are just finishing up and heading outside to enjoy the snow,” Demmert said.

This school day doesn’t seem much different than any other this year. If anything, that’s because of what happened Friday, not in spite of it.

“One of the things that’s important, too, is that we continue with our daily routines,” Demmert said. “We ask teachers to keep an eye on their kids, of course, and if some are really struggling with things we have excellent school counselors who are available to really help kids process through the feelings they might have.”

And that takes us back to Margie Esquiro’s second grade classroom. This school day came and went without much talk of Connecticut, or shootings, or tragedy. But Esquiro says in the days ahead, her 7- and 8-year-old students will probably start getting curious.

“So I guess we’ll just see what happens,” Esquiro said. “It’s not going to go away in the media. It’s going to be on the radio. Now kids will start talking about it, to each other. And that happens on the playground. Kids will start talking about it and then they’ll come in with something that they heard. And we’ll just deal with it as it happens.”


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