The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 21, 2012

Parents and officials discuss school safety and fear

By Robert Stoneback
The Daily Item

— DANVILLE — Is our school safe? How do we talk to our children about death? How do we know if our sons and daughters will come home safe?

These are just some of the questions on the minds of parents throughout the Danville Area School District and around the country in the days following the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.

A group of about 10 community members asked district staff the questions on every parent’s mind — how do we reassure our children when we are scared ourselves?

“One of the questions we asked on Friday was, did we feel safe on Thursday (the day before the shooting)? The answer is yes,” said Dr. Stephen Kalberer, school psychologist. An open discussion on the shooting and its affects, both on parents and students, was held at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Danville Primary School.

“Everyone who sits here is affected by this event,” said Mike Maize, district intervention specialist for secondary education students. The questions and concerns of most parents and guardians boil down to this, he said — “How do our kids come out of it whole and how do we come out of it whole to be there for them?”

District-wide, the schools are handling the conversations related to the shooting very appropriately for different grade levels, said Kalberer. As an example, moments of silence were observed among the older grades but not with primary school students who likely would not have the proper context in which to frame the tragedy.

“First and foremost, we’re all parents,” said John Bickhart, principal of Danville Primary School. Bickhart has a son going to first grade in Milton’s school district, and shares many of the same concerns as parents with children in the district.

He said that one advantage the newer primary school has over the three, smaller elementary schools that preceded it is that it is a much more secure building. Systems are in place to make sure the building cannot be unlocked from the outside and even before last Friday’s shooting the district was reviewing security methods to find any potential flaws.

“We are being as diligent as we can with those procedures,” said Bickhart. The district knows its parents, and knows what questions to ask someone they don’t recognize, he said.

Earlier this week, the district decided it would start monthly lockdown drills, similar to their monthly fire drills.

However, he said, it’s impossible to absolutely guarantee safety, similar to how when a child is placed in a car there is not way to be certain there won’t be an accident. “We’ll never quite know. I hate that answer,” Bickhart said.

Maize said the key to make a child feel emotionally safe is to make sure they feel safe. While some parents may want to protect their young children from learning of the tragedy, it’s still possible for them to learn of it from other classmates. That doesn’t mean that parents need to tell their children if they don’t want to, however.

“There’s no right or wrong answer,” said Kalberer. He advised the adults to trust their instincts as a parent.

For his part, Bickhart told his son that if he had any questions about the shooting he should ask him about it, not other kids. Bickhart said any parents or kids who need to speak to him can call him at the school at 271-3268 ext. 3800.

“A lot of the conversations tonight are ones the district is already having,” Bickhart said.

One thing to focus on, though, he said, is that a lot of the kids in the district are still looking forward to the holidays. “Our kids at this age are going to come back excited for the holidays, and we need to celebrate that,” he said.

“There are a lot of bad people in the world. … but schools are filled with better people.”