MF: You guys looked at the way some of the school kids in the North Country reacted to the Newtown shootings. What did they tell you? Did it really resonate with them?
TH: For a number, it did. At Peru Intermediate School, for example, which we visited in the days right after Newtown, we found 5th graders who wanted to create…handmade sympathy cards, with personal messages offering prayers, wishes of peace and comfort to the victims' families, survivors and the school community. Their teacher has sent those cards on to Connecticut, she sent them a few weeks ago.
Teachers in the 6th grade tell us the Monday right after the shootings, they didn't want to change their students' routines, so they continued with their poetry writing unit they'd been doing, and had the students write poems about what happened at Sandy Hook. And the students say writing about the tragedy really helped them feel better, putting their grief and sadness into words, and several of the students even read their poems at a recent school board meeting, and the poems were so touching and heartfelt, that the teacher says that many people at the meeting were brought to tears.
MF: There's also the larger conversation, of course, the debate over gun safety and gun control. How is that conversation happening in the education system here about ways to react, and ways to prevent this kind of tragedy?
TH: The school administrators tell us the conversation really started in the hours right after Newtown, throughout the weekend, and on the first Monday back. They started reviewing safety plans, they've been holding meetings with teachers, in some cases parents, their safety committees.
In most cases they're talking about adding some new layers of security, perhaps more cameras and intercoms at their doors, making their entrances more secure, perhaps in the case of one school a vestibule so that there are two sets of locked doors so it forces visitors to be seen and heard and interact with the office staff before they ever get their foot in the first front door of the school, and then they have to interact with the office staff before they can actually get inside the school building.
MF: So you're finding that schools are taking concrete steps in terms of changing security, how about asking parents and staff to behave differently?
TH: Both, really. One school in particular that we visited is in Hudson Falls, NY in Washington County. They added a new video phone intercom system that they put outside the [entrances] of all five of the district school buildings in the past month, and the superintendent…says that was a direct result of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.
But the other thing you mentioned about parents and students, they are now including all of their students, including their five- and six-year-olds, 1st graders and kindergartners, in their intruder drills. In fact they held one just about three weeks ago, with a mock gunman who takes hostages, and while many people might see that as being far too realistic for kids that young, the superintendent defends the decision saying that they want to make sure kids know what to do in an emergency, like in Newtown, that they know where to go, what to do, and that they've got it down pat, and he says by holding a lot more of these drills, perhaps a dozen or more over the school year, like fire drills, that he thinks they're going to be better prepared and he says that's a direct result of what happened at Newtown.
Now other school administrators that we talked with are a bit more cautious and reluctant to use the mock intruders and bring in the police, but they also say they plan to increase the frequency of these drills.
MF: Does anybody talk to you about money? Obviously in the news we hear almost every day what a struggle our local schools are having, particularly in the North Country, to maintain the programs that they have, and many are not able to do that, what district can afford to spend more money on security? How are they weighing that?
TH: The superintendent in Hudson falls spent about $5,000 to put that intercom system at the entrance of all five of the school buildings. He said that money came from an equipment budget and they were gladly willing to take that and use that money.
But when you get into some of the other security layers, or when you get into the question of, for example, school resource officers, which a number of people are talking about now, and administrators say they are thinking about that again, back a few years ago when there was the COPS program and when there were police officers in a number of schools, many people are talking about the value of that, and bringing that back, most of those positions were eliminated due to budget cuts over the last several years, but when you start talking about [that] you're looking at $40,000, $50,000 just to start, and that’s when you get into the area of having to come up with money that a number of districts may not have to spend at this point.
The special Mountain Lake Journal comes during a week of special coverage "After Newtown" from PBS nationwide. It airs live Thursday at 8pm. It'll be re-broadcast Friday at noon, Saturday at 7pm, and Sunday morning at 10.