The principal of W.T. Jackson Elementary School in Buckhead said she is doing her best to keep calm for the faculty and students after the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn.
“It has almost been all-consuming,” she said. “It’s a heavy feeling of responsibility. People are basically trusting us with 900-and-some-odd children. That’s a big responsibility and it weighs heavily.”
Reich said parents have stopped by to ask how she is going to “handle this.”
She said she currently keeps most of her feelings inside, in an effort to maintain as much normalcy as possible at the school.
“You think, ‘What would I do? If I was standing here, would I have the courage to do this?’” Reich said. “The natural instinct is to protect.”
She said she felt general apprehension and anxiety from the school population the week after the tragedy.
“Fortunately, we have a comprehensive safety plan, which includes a typical fire drill and intruder kinds of drills,” she said. “Everyone obviously is now reexamining it and looking back to say, ‘What if it happened here?’ … We heightened everyone’s awareness, revisited the plan and tightened up all of our monitoring in terms of double checking before buzzing someone in.”
Schools throughout Atlanta are re-checking safety plans, including all Fulton County Schools, where the school police has an additional presence in elementary schools, and now has a 24-7 emergency communication system.
“We certainly try to share the message that safety is everyone’s responsibility, from the principal to the custodian, and from the teacher to the parent – everyone can have an impact on student safety,” said district Director of Safety and Security Mark Muma.
Muma said his staff works in conjunction with Chris Matthews, the district’s executive director of counseling, psychological and social work services.
Matthews said information was sent to parents and teachers the weekend after the tragedy.
“We included things to look for and simple phrases to show support and stay away from while helping the kids to process the information,” he said.
Tips given to parents include observing the child’s emotional state, making time to talk, being honest, reviewing safety procedures and limiting access to media coverage of the devastating aftermath.
Although Matthews said there was not yet a clear assessment regarding elementary children’s responses to the tragedy, he said all schools have CARE Response and Recovery team responders.
“Any student within a classroom showing a typical response, such as preoccupation, wanting to talk about it consistently, has lots of questions, or showing anxiety and worry, … they’re referred to CARE team responders,” he said. “They meet with individuals or in small groups.”
Matthews said if the child needs further emotional support to alleviate fears, parents are notified and they will provide community base counseling.
Reich told her staff to only talk about the tragedy if children bring it up, she said.
“It’s been very minimal. Most of our families had the weekend to talk it over,” Reich said. “We don’t want major discussions about it. … There is a natural fear factor, but almost more of a, ‘What is the world coming to?’ kind of thing. … It is such horrendous thing to happen in elementary school it’s almost unfathomable."