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Be prepared: Officials mull future in wake of Newtown attack / December 19, 2012
Nearly two months ago, a quartet of school and law enforcement officials — school superintendent James Thornton and assistant superintendent John Keeler, and Sheriff Bobby Hawkins and Capt. Terry Edmonds — gathered to debate the question that hangs over the country in the wake of the shooting massacre Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

It’s the same question articulated by President Obama is his remarks Sunday to the families of 20 slain children and six school employees: “Can we honestly say we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?”

The short answer, officials concede, is no.

Hawkins called it sadly ironic that local discussions about the need for a plan in the face of violence would be brought home by a brutal, senseless killing in Newtown, Conn. less than two months later. “We thought we were being proactive, planning for the worst before the worst came to pass.”

Monday as he stood outside La Crosse Elementary School, “trying to wrap his head around the best way to prevent a similar tragedy in this county,” Hawkins said in an interview that it has become even more apparent to him that whatever plan is instituted must be thoughtful, standardized and “not knee-jerk,” but designed “as much as possible prevent another massacre like this one.”

Two months ago, after a casual conversation with a Virginia State Trooper, Hawkins began looking into school procedures for dealing with armed attacks or similar violence. After meeting with Thornton and Keeler, and looking into each school’s plans, Hawkins learned that nothing was standardized.

“This [the lack of standard procedures] is a problem. We won’t know what we are walking in to, what areas are safe and which ones may still be dangerous.” He then called in Virginia State Police, local law enforcement and others to develop a single policy for every school in Mecklenburg County.

Hawkins said, “I learned a lot from watching news coverage in Connecticut” — such as how to collect and disseminate information, where to stage areas for concerned parties, parents, the press and others. “But no one can teach us how to stop the violence, or what triggers it.”

To emphasize his point, Hawkins shared an example of a child brought to LaCrosse Elementary by local law enforcement. The child had, in Hawkins words, “anger issues.” The student had to be carried into the classroom. Recounting the incident, Hawkins asked rhetorically, “Should that child be in school? Will that child become violent? We just don’t know.

“There are about 200 windows in La Crosse Elementary School. How do we stop someone getting in or shooting at the students if that is what they want? We can’t turn every building into a bunker,” Hawkins mused, adding that he and other law enforcement personnel, as well as school officials, are looking into every option: metal detectors, resource officers, lock downs, video cameras, even biometric access devices.

The bottom line, according to Hawkins, is that there are no easy answers and “all of this costs money.” The least expensive option — installing resource officers at each of the elementary schools — will cost about a quarter million dollars, he estimated.

Thornton, who is continuing to work with Hawkins on the issue, agreed that Mecklenburg County schools must investigate new measures for keeping the students safe. In a written statement, Thornton also called on individuals to develop a culture of love.

He said, “We are all reeling from the tragic news of Friday. We hunt for words that might mirror the raging in the corridors of our minds. Tragic. Senseless. Unimaginable. But each word, once rendered on our tongue, is inept at carrying the confusion and horror and pain inside. For those that can, we pull our children close, holding their little frames until they pull away and gaze up at us pleasant, but confused. ‘Daddy, why are you staring at me?’

“As we teeter on the edge of such sadness, we must remember that we have children that have pressed off to the bus stop this morning to start another day with us. We must remind our students and ourselves that there is good, and that this good is far surpassing any evil we now confront. We must continue to cultivate a culture in our schools in which love is the foundation: a culture in which a team of dedicated individuals always consider the needs of our students first.”

The killing in Connecticut was freshly horrifying and painful for Alexander Rawles, a freshman at Virginia Tech during the massacre on that campus in 2007. Rawles, who graduated last year with a Masters in Public Administration, said he would encourage Mecklenburg officials to consult with Virginia Tech. He said that those who worked on security after the 2007 tragedy can help develop a policy for the local community.

Rawles said the campus made several changes after becoming the scene of the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history. But it cannot erase the pain Rawles feels when he recounts that tragic day.

He was in residence at his dorm, West Ambler Johnston Hall, when Seung-Hui Cho began his shooting rampage. Cho killed two students in that dorm before heading off to Norris Hall where he continued his killing spree. Cho shot one of Rawles’ closet friends in the face during his classroom rampage.

Rawles knows he is lucky — he could have been a victim. He lived in the dorm where the killing began and he took classes in Norris Hall.

Rawles said the hurt and the memory of the killings will never die for him. So, the only way to protect students — both physically and emotionally — is to prevent acts of violence. He applauds both the sheriff and school officials for being proactive on the issue.

One of the first things Virginia Tech did after the 2007 massacre was to bring in special counselors. He believes they may still be on campus, more than five years after the incident. Counselors were there for everyone, not just for the victims who survived the shooting, Rawles said. Students like him who were nearby but physically unharmed could also use the counseling services for free. “You never know who or how someone is affected by such a traumatic event.”

Another major change that came in response to the shooting involved the way the school notified students, faculty and others on campus of emergencies, including potential violence. “You can now receive a warning via text message, phone call or e-mail message,” Rawles explained. Additionally, each classroom has a monitor that broadcasts neon warning messages with instructions on what to do in a crisis.

Virginia closed a loophole in its handling of records for persons with mental health issues. Now anyone committed to a mental hospital, whether as an inpatient or an outpatient, is included in the database of mentally ill people who cannot purchase a gun. Still, Hawkins cautions against thinking that changes to the mental health reporting laws will eliminate school violence.

Another area he finds particularly troublesome is that of gun control. He believes outlawing certain guns will not solve the problem. Too many people already own guns with high capacity magazines that can shoot a large number of bullets before having to reload, Hawkins said.

In response to Friday’s violence, Mecklenburg County School Counselor Crystal Walsh shared tips for helping children to cope with such catastrophic events.

Walsh’s ten tips, which she said come from the National Association of School Psychologists, are:

1. Remain calm;

2. Reassure the children that they are safe;

3. Explain that police, firefighters, doctors, and other leaders are helping the injured and working to stop the tragedy;

4. Allow children the freedom to be upset but encourage them to express their feelings appropriately;

5. Continue to monitor a child’s emotional state, by watching their eating and sleeping patterns;

6. Be mindful of children with a prior history of mental illness, depression or past traumatic experiences;

7. Tell children the truth about an incident in age appropriate language; and

8. Stick to the facts;

9. Maintain a routine but provide a physical presence for the child – with plenty of hugs; and

10. Limit television time.

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One he forgot. Teach young people to be responsible with a gun. MY 13 yo knows how to shoot and shoot exceptionally well. So if a criminal tries to get in my house, he will have a surprise. I have also taught him that he has to follow the law. Parents need to be parents. Remember the old saying Spare the rod, spoil the child. We have forgot an we have taken Christan values out of school.


Fully agreed kids should be taught to handle and carry a gun responsibly.

The disconnect here is the Lanza kid HAD been exposed to proper handling of firearms and regularly went to target shooting with his mother. He knew how to handle a gun. Whatever snapped in his brain is what caused this mass murder.

I never considered myself sheltered, and maybe they just weren't mainstreamed like now, but I don't remember any autistic kids in my 12 years of public school. It's the last 20 or so years that it's become prevalent. Makes you wonder what factors effect it that maybe weren't there earlier.

This SHOULD be a wakeup call to make sure troubled kids get the mental health help they need, instead of MH services being the first thing on the budget chopping block.

I'm as pro-Second as they come, but even I believe rapid-fire assault weapons should not be in civilian hands.


To follow up, I'm not totally convinced even law enforcement personnel need rapid-fire large-magazine assault weapons, because even with all their firearms training, many of them are not stable enough to handle such a weapon and will get trigger-happy too.

Thank God we got one of our former sheriffs out of the way before he succeeded in turning HC Sheriff's Office into that armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary organization he always dreamed of having.

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