ORLEANS COUNTY – In the wake of the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, which left 20 children and six adults dead, local schools and administrators are taking action. As a first step, Dr. Robert Kern, superintendent of the North Country Supervisory Union, has issued an open letter to the community that addresses concerns and policies in place. Doug Westin, principal of Derby Elementary School, is also working on a letter to parents of Derby and Morgan students.
Schools across the supervisory union were closed Monday due to inclement weather, but there is likely not a parent around who is not at least somewhat anxious about returning their children to school and pondering their children's safety. The letter helps reassure parents and caregivers that there are policies in place and those policies will be reviewed with the help of many people, including law enforcement.
However, in the letter, Kern warns to stay vigilant for copy-cat activities and to report any suspicious activities to authorities in a timely manner. “Our community at large is our best defense against preventing such acts directed towards our students and staff,” he writes.
Already, one potential copy-cat incident has been foiled in California with the arrest of Kyle Bangayan, 24, of Pomona, after police learned of several "disturbing messages" Bangayan allegedly posted to social media sites and which referred to the Newtown, CT, shooting. Police also located nine guns at Bangayan's home.
Locally, a crisis team engaged immediately following the news from Connecticut, Kern said. Members of the team are available to students, staff, and parents affected by the tragedy. Call the crisis team manager, Stephanie Currier, at North Country High School, for more information.
The supervisory union website (www.ncsuvt.org ) contains recommendations to help prevent problems as well as information on how to speak with students about the tragedy that has occurred and about their own safety while in school.
Westin’s letter introduces Kern’s letter as well as adds other points specific to Derby school. Westin said the school staff met and discussed how to speak with the students about the Connecticut incident and are following the recommendations from the National Mental Health Association.
The letter offers reassurance that Derby has policies in place for handling potential crises in many areas, including intruders and violence. All schools in the district, including Derby, closely follow the guidelines from the Vermont School Crisis Management Team. Westin calls the guide a source for best practices for Vermont Schools. But now, in light of the tragedy, Westin says a fresh look will be taken of the crisis guide and he expects revisions.
Over the weekend, Kern had a conversation with Lt. Kirk Cooper of the State Police barracks in Derby. Cooper plans to provide “non-intrusive” support for the safety of school children. A meeting is scheduled to review safety preparedness.
According to the supervisory union website, among other policies in place, there is a strict expectation that all visitors on campus check in at the front office before proceeding anywhere on campus and that they attain visitors' badges.
Administrative staff is vigilant about supervising students during the school day and have been trained to respond to potentially dangerous situations. There is a close relationship with local law enforcement agencies that support school safety efforts. Frequent conversations with students occur during the school year about reporting any potential threats to an adult for investigation.
“Together we are our own best resource to keep our community and our schools safe,” said Kern.