By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
When events like Friday’s school shooting in Connecticut happen anywhere in the nation, the emotional ripples course through every individual community, and Somerset is no different.
Officials at all of Pulaski’s public schools followed the disturbing news coming out of Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary throughout the day and all faced the same sobering realization: That could be us.
“My heart goes out to that elementary school,” said Steve Butcher, Superintendent of the Pulaski County School District. “You just can’t wrap your head around why stuff like that happens. We do everything we can to protect our kids, and I’m sure that school district (in Connecticut) did the same.”
Rick Walker, Science Hill Superintendent, declared it a “sad day” for everyone who knew about the tragedy.
“It makes me sick to my stomach,” said Walker. “I was talking to somebody whose mother called them a while ago. She was just sobbing, watching the kids being carried out in body bags. It makes you think and wonder and worry.”
Boyd Randolph, Somerset Schools Superintendent, offered prayers and sympathies to the families of those affected by the shootings.
“We’re in the child development business,” he said, referring to why Friday’s events hit so close to home. “That’s our product, our passion. It’s what we do, protecting and taking care of kids — that’s us.”
Another thing all the education leaders can agree on is that they’re doing what they can currently to help keep a similar situation from occurring here locally.
“We have readiness drills that encompass a variety of possible occurrences,” said Randolph. “These are things that are constantly being reviewed. The planning process never ends with this.”
That process includes sitting down with disaster and emergency relief personnel to discuss different scenarios and working with local health care providers to designate certain parts of the city schools as triage centers in case of a community crisis.
“Most of our protection and lockdown and evaluation procedures are well-known and practiced,” said Randolph. “Of course, everything in our world is fast-paced, technology is fast-paced, and we have to strive constantly to make sure we’re communicating to parents.”
Randolph praised a “good relationship” with local police and firefighters as a key part of the system — “We’re fortunate to have great leaders in that area here in Pulaski,” he said.
Walker said that Science Hill has “plans in place,” and Principal Rita Presley regularly has students perform drills to keeps students and faculty prepared. Presley noted that an individual from the Kentucky Center for School Safety recently came to Science Hill and reviewed the school’s dismissal process and overall security.
“He was overall positive about the way we’re doing things now, but his recommendation was that we have an access control panel for use for the front door,” said Presley. “We’re moving toward that, toward having a camera there and a buzzer. It would be monitored from the front desk, and reception would allow access into the school. We are going to move in that direction; that’s in the works.”
Butcher said that all schools in the county system have School Resource Officers from local law enforcement on hand, and go through all safety procedures yearly with principals and staff. Other, more detail-oriented measures are also in place across the numerous elementary, middle and high schools throughout the district.
“We’ve got our doors numbered, and the police, fire department, all those folks have a layout of what the building looks like,” said Butcher. “We have all of our visitors sign in, and have safety doors. We keep all exterior doors locked except for the main entrance. We do all we can to make sure we know who’s in the building. Every student knows about lockdown drills. Each school has their own secret code they holler over the intercom, and teachers know exactly what to do if there’s an intruder in the building.”
Though the Newtown shootings happened Friday morning, many across the country didn’t really learn of them until later in the afternoon. Thus, many students here in Pulaski County didn’t necessarily learn about what had happened while they were in school, or so appears to be the case based on what the superintendents said. Still, each pledged that every student who might have difficulty processing the fatal incident would have the resources they need to help them through this time.
“(Students) will be going home to their families for the weekend and they’ll see it on the news and talk to their parents,” said Walker, “but yes, we have an excellent guidance counselor, Ms. (Barbara) Estep. She’s highly trained, skilled and compassionate, if students need to talk.”
He noted that Estep would likely be available over the weekend if any students wanted to meet or just talk about their feelings about the tragic events.
Butcher said that Pulaski Schools maintain a team of grief counselors at the ready, for situations like this and others that hit closer to home.
“If we have a tragedy in our school like a car wreck, we have grief counselors meet with students,” he said. “We try to make sure we’re covering our bases. I talked to a couple of principals today, and their reaction was much like mine, they were appalled by what happened. I don’t think most of the students knew about it. Maybe some of the older kids knew something, but not the elementary kids.”
Randolph said access to information for younger students is “much more controlled” but normal protocol would be to provide a chance for students to talk with counselors for “any type of tragedy.” He also said that he was the first to inform the city school system’s principals of what had happened.
“I just made sure they were aware, were aware that parents might be calling with concerns, that they were ready,” he said. “They’ve been carrying on with business as usual.”
Randolph said there were no reports of students needing counseling, but “if there are, we will give kids what they needs.”
Walker said that he brought his own family here to Pulaski County to escape some of things he saw working as an educator in the more urban Nashville area, where violence was always a threat looming over daily school life — but safety is never guaranteed.
“One of my schools (in Nashville) had gang members, and lockdowns because there had been a robbery at the bank across the park,” he said. “One of the reasons I brought my child to Science Hill is that it’s a safer environment — but you can never be careful enough.”