May 26—SOUTHERN INDIANA — For local schools, the mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas is igniting conversations about school safety and ways to support students, teachers and families as they process the tragic news.
A gunman killed 21 people Tuesday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, including 19 children and two teachers. The school shooting is the deadliest mass shooting since the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary, where 26 victims were killed in 2012.
Kathy Gilland, principal at Utica Elementary School, said the shooting led to conversations with parents and staff about safety protocols at the Jeffersonville school.
Before students entered the room for a Wednesday awards ceremony at the school, she talked with parents about safety measures and allowed them to reach out with questions and concerns.
"We feel our No. 1 job is to make sure students are safe," she said. "We do everything we can — we make sure our procedures are tight and our children know what to do."
Community Montessori Director Barbara Burke Fondren said the tragedy has come up in conversations during parent conferences this week as the school shares resources for families to cope with the news. In a letter to families, she encouraged them "to hug your children tonight."
She emphasizes the toll that these crises have upon parents, students and teachers.
"These situations force us to think about the most tragic of things you can even imagine," she said.
New Albany-Floyd County Superintendent Brad Snyder said he is "in shock" about the Texas shooting.
"I stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in education in Texas, just like I stood in solidarity with Sandy Hook, Parkland and Columbine," he said.
On Wednesday, he said all NAFCS administrators were planning to use Google Meet to "talk and listen and share to figure out things we need to do" in response to the tragedy in Texas.
Snyder said the tragic shooting is a reminder to "focus on kindness," and it is prompting conversations about staying vigilant as the end of the school year approaches.
At Utica Elementary, safety measures range from building security to intruder drills, Gilland said. Doors remain locked throughout the day, including the exterior doors and classroom doors.
Gilland said the school had an intruder drill just a couple of weeks ago, saying children take the drills seriously and "you could hear a pin drop" as the students remained quiet.
"In this world, we have to take this seriously," she said.
As NAFCS approaches its last day of school, administrators are discussing the "need to be vigilant," Snyder said. The district's last day of school is June 2.
"The end of school is filled with a lot more obstacles," he said. "We have field trips, we have field days, we have celebrations, we have graduations, so the amount of visitors and exposures is much higher the last couple of weeks than other points, so we really need to focus on vigilance."
Snyder said if a principal has a concern about an event or is made aware of a possible threat, it could result in extra security measures, whether that is extra police officers or a change in venue, but those would be on a "case by case" basis.
NAFCS has three SROs from the Floyd County Sheriff's Office and three from the New Albany Police Department present in the schools. The six officers are mainly stationed at the high schools and middle schools, but they are on call if they need to go to any of the elementary schools, Snyder said.
In 2020, school leaders pushed for the funding of additional safety measures across NAFCS schools through a referendum, but it was rejected by voters. Most of the funding would have been directed to mental health services, violence prevention and anti-bullying efforts, and the rest would have supported physical building improvements and additional SROs.
The Clark County Sheriff's Office has expanded the number of school resource officers present in local schools in recent years, Chief Deputy Scottie Maples said. The department has a "strong relationship" with local schools, he said.
The department now has seven SROs at schools, including Silver Creek Primary, Silver Creek Elementary, New Washington Elementary, New Washington High School, the Henryville campus and the Borden campus.
Maples said it is a "tough job" to serve as SRO, saying "you want to establish relationships with the kids so they respect you and get to know you, but also be guarded" to respond to possible threats and crises.
"You could be dealing with a crisis situation that involves firearms and things like that potentially, but you also have to establish relationships with children so they trust you and want to come to you and tell you things if they need help," he said.
He emphasizes "if you see something, say something." Maples said SROs respond weekly to concerns based on posts made on social media, saying "we investigate all threats, even perceived threats, very seriously in schools."
"Even if it pans out to be nothing, we like to know about it so we can investigate it," he said.
At Community Montessori and other schools in the area, the plans for intruder and active shooter scenarios remain confidential for safety reasons, but Fondren notes that staff members "know what to do," and the school has "always found great support from law enforcement when needed." Tuesday was the last day of school at the New Albany charter school.
"Unfortunately being in the school world, you have to plan for the impossible and hope for the best," she said.
She also notes the importance of educators connecting with their students and understanding when students are struggling.
Borden-Henryville School Corp. Superintendent Johnny Budd said school safety is "at the forefront of any administrator's mind, and "it's always something we're considering." The district has SROs at both campuses.
"As school administrators, we're focused on academics, and school safety is up there," he said. "We're focused on the academic side of things, but obviously what's good about those resource officers is that they're focused on school safety, and it's nice to have those school officers in the buildings."
Shawn Arroyo, a teen leader for Centerstone, works with Greater Clark County Schools to provide counseling across the district, and on Wednesday, he observed conversations among students and staff about the Texas school shooting.
The agency provides mental health services at the elementary, middle and high schools.
"I think a lot of the themes focus on anxiety, and a lot of talk about feeling fatigue — we experience significant emotion each time we're hearing about one of these tragedies, and it fatigues both students and staff," Arroyo said. "It kind of brings to the forefront the deep fear that all of us have going to school."
LifeSpring Health Systems President and CEO Beth Keeney said "these are scary situations for adults as well as children — especially for children." The agency provides mental health services in schools across 11 counties in Southern Indiana, including school systems in Clark and Floyd.
"If anyone is having a hard time with it, they may feel they need the extra support," she said. "You expect that home and school are safe places for children, and you don't expect these types of horrific traumas to happen in safe spaces...children may not be directly impacted by the violence, but they may be facing secondary impacts."
Children may have a difficult time understanding what has happened, in addition to mass shootings that have occurred in the past, Keeney said. She emphasizes the need to have age-appropriate conversations and limit exposure to media coverage, particularly for young children, to avoid continuing the trauma associated with this type of news.
For teens, it might be helpful to talk to them about what they've heard and seen about the situation and get an idea of what their concerns are.
"It's a good opportunity to have a discussion with children about overall safety when they feel unsafe and what the plans are to keep them safe," Keeney said. "It's a good opportunity to check with the schools as well to see what sort of social-emotional support they are providing classrooms and what sort of safety mechanisms are available in classrooms."
She is a mother of two daughters, ages 10 and 14. She started a conversation with her older daughter before school this morning about the tragedy, which allowed her to provide age-appropriate information and give her child space to ask questions.
"One of the things we're doing in our house is watching what we say when the children are there — I might be very upset about a policy or a situation, but my anxiety and stress can transfer directly to children," she said.
Arroyo said one of the most important things to do following these types of tragedies is to validate emotions surrounding these events, particularly as adults speak with kids.
For children, it is helpful to have a positive adult role model who would be comfortable having a conversation about these tough topics.
"Instead of saying there are no reasons to be scared, recognize and understand these feelings they're having," Arroyo said. "It's also recognizing what safety you do have in your life....and what precautions are in place."
At Community Montessori, Fondren said that in a conversation with a young child "letting them lead" is important as adults answer their questions, and they should let the kids know "they're cared for." As teenagers process a tragedy such a mass shooting, it is useful to let them know that there is a plan in place for such scenarios.
In addition to caring for kids who are struggling with news of a mass shooting, it is also essential to let teachers "know that we appreciate and respect them," Fondren said.
This week, the school has sent out communications to families with resources such as ways to speak with children in the wake of a school shooting, and one of her colleagues shared a quote from Fred Rogers about looking for the helpers and letting children know that it's normal to feel sad or scared when scary things happen.
"We're just trying to find all the ways families can come to grips with and answer questions that are developmentally appropriate," Fondren said.