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Contemplating the Unimaginable

SoVaNow.com / December 17, 2012
It couldn’t happen here — a comforting thought, but one devoid of meaning when it happens to a community not so different from own in Halifax County.

In the wake of the shooting massacre Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., locals offered a range of reactions, touching on school safety, our ability to anticipate deadly rampages by mentally disturbed persons, the role of guns in society, and law enforcement’s preparedness for an atrocity that, harsh experience shows, can happen anywhere.



Dr. Merle Herndon, 
Superintendent of Halifax County Public Schools



Herndon said the “first thing” school officials will do in the wake of Friday’s shootings is to evaluate safety preparations and fan out across county schools to make sure the proper steps are taken to protect students and staff from a potential assault.

She said educators also must be prepared to deal with students’ concerns and “make sure they know they’re safe.”

School safety is an ongoing challenge for the local schools, and Herndon acknowledged that improvements could be made. She said she was “very proud” of the local division’s investment in security cameras but said schools were not always diligent about limiting access to buildings by unauthorized visitors.

“In all honesty, there are doors that are not locked” at some schools, said Herndon.

“We have talked about security, but it hasn’t been a topic of this magnitude,” she said. Herndon said she has her own ideas for handling threats from what she distinguished as “inside perpetrators” and “outside perpetrators.”

“There are very different things you do when you have someone outside the building who could cause problems than when they’re inside,” she said.

Quick action can make a difference if someone roaming outside a school poses a threat — Herndon offered the example of lowering the blinds to prevent a possible shooter from looking inside a classroom. Advance training and preparation can help staff react appropriately should a threat emerge.

Herndon also noted that visitors at some schools are “buzzed in” before being allowed to enter, but the practice is not uniform. While security cameras operate around the clock, there are times when no one is monitoring the cameras to flag suspicious persons.

Doing so, said Herndon, is “going to put extra weight on the [school] secretary, but you know, we’re talking about the security of the kids here.”

Herndon said the slaughter of 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary brought back unpleasant memories of an incident that occurred while she was principal of Linkhorne Elementary School in Lynchburg. Herndon recalled that an armed woman with apparent mental health issues entered the school as a program involving her child was under way. Because she knew the woman, Herndon said she was able to engage her in conversation and possibly prevent her from going through with an attack. Other adults on the scene, including parents, formed a human shield around the children.

“This is crazy and random and it could have been anywhere,” said Herndon. “I keep thinking about when I was a principal and we had a person with a gun at the school. A person came in the school who had been released from a mental health hospital the night before. This is a concern to me because I’ve lived it.”



Jim Binner, 
Chief of Police, South Boston
 Police Department



Binner noted that police train for a variety of school emergency scenarios, including deranged shooters, but he said the Newtown massacre may change the way law enforcement evaluates the potential risks: “This is the first time anywhere in the country when an elementary school was targeted,” he said.

“We do a lot of planning and assessment more towards high schools and institutions of high learning” — a grim nod, Binner conceded, to earlier mass shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech — and added, “I’m one of the many who probably felt that elementary school kids were safe.

“I’m sure we’ll be sitting down with members of the school administration, the sheriff’s department, State Police, and having that conversation,” he said.

In the immediate aftermath of the Connecticut shooting, Binner said his department would ramp up its presence at South Boston Elementary, the middle school and high school. He said four or five officers would spread out through the three schools over the next several weeks, leading up into Christmas break and possibly for a week after school resumes, to lend assurance to students and staff that they are secure. “You’re going to see a more visible appearance by patrol officers,” he said.

Law enforcement has limited ability to do anything more than react to school shootings — “I don’t know if you could ever prepare yourself for anything as horrific as that was” — and Binner said he does not believe tighter gun restrictions are an effective response to events such as the Sandy Hook massacre. But he does believe more could be done to identify and treat individuals dealing with mental health issues of the sort that may have plagued young Adam Lanza, the assailant who died in the attack.

“I believe this is more a mental health issue,” said Binner — and while he said he is unaware of what has been happening in Connecticut, “you’ve had more cuts in Virginia in the mental health profession. I think this is a situation where one fell through the cracks and [resources] could have been diverted.”

In his 20 years of law enforcement, Binner said he has never encountered a situation anything like the Newtown shooting. “And I never want to find out.”



Kevin Chandler, mental health professional, 
Southside Community Services Board, and pastor, Trinity Baptist Church, South Boston



“There’s so much need,” said Chandler of the challenges facing the mental health community, for which Southside Community Services operates in the lead in Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties. While Chandler’s field is substance abuse prevention, as opposed to behavioral health, which encompasses the treatment of mentally disturbed individuals, he said his experience clearly indicates inadequate resources are being devoted to mental health issues in the community.

“The politicians need to come together to get some type of health care provided to those in need,” he said. “So many times, those people with mental illness are not getting the care they need.”

A useful step, said Chandler, would be for Virginia to participate in the expansion of Medicaid envisioned by the Affordable Care Act — a move that has proven controversial in some states, including Virginia. “Not to make it political, but there has been a lot of bickering back and forth along partisan lines on who receives health care and who doesn’t,” said Chandler.

In another of his roles — pastor at Trinity Baptist — Chandler said he has been leading the congregation in prayers for those who have been touched personally by the tragedy, in Connecticut and elsewhere. “We are living in a world where there is trouble everywhere,” said Chandler. “As a church body, we are praying for those affected.

“We’re all affected by it. It could have happened here, here in South Boston …. They [slain pupils] didn’t have an opportunity to grow up. We don’t know what their future held for them. That’s been snuffed out because of something that could have been avoided.”

Chandler added, however, that he doesn’t believe gun control is the answer to the Sandy Hook massacre. A gun owner himself, Chandler says he takes precautions to make sure no one in his household has easy access to guns. “But I don’t think stricter gun laws would have prevented this,” he said.



Marliss Barczak, principal, Meadville Elementary



Upon learning of the scope of the tragedy Friday, Meadville Elementary observed a moment of silence toward the end of the day, and staff made a point of trying to reassure children without exacerbating feelings of insecurity, said Barczak, who became Meadville’s principal this year. But she predicted that when class resumes this morning, some families will choose to keep their children away.

“You wonder if kids are even going to show up [Monday],” she admitted. “After Columbine we did have a drop in attendance at the middle school for several days.” Barczak is a former middle school assistant principal.

“It’s sickening. There really aren’t any words to express how awful it is,” she said. Yet the murders of the young elementary students — and the heroic actions by school staff to stop the slaughter, some losing their lives as a result — “did show how much educators care about the kids they deal with every day.

“They’re our kids we care about … and we would do everything in the world we can to protect them,” said Barczak.

Barczak said in the aftermath of the tragedy, she hopes the U.S. will take tangible action to better identify and treat persons dealing with mental health problems, especially troubled youths. “We’ve got to get these kids who have mental health issues some help,” she said. “You’ve got to dig deep.”

Of security measures to protect against school assailants, she was less sanguine. At Meadville, “we do have every door locked and we do have a door bell that someone has to ring and we have a camera out. But obviously they had those things there [at Sandy Hook Elementary] and it didn’t stop it from happening,” she said.

“No matter how well prepared you are, it still could happen.”

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Comments

Simple arm teachers that are veterans or that have a concealed carry permit. This will make some people think twice. But you liberal winnies think that the government will protect you. And yet you claim to be educated? Now nobama will try an take away guns instead of letting law abiding people have them. The criminal will always find a way to get a weapon. THEY ARE A CRIMINAL!

Comments

"Simple arm teachers that are veterans..."

I take this statement with profound offense. My brother is a 21-year, 100% disabled highly honorably retired US Marine veteran. He is also a loving and involved father. I am sure that if he were physically able and had the proclivity, he would make a fantastic teacher. But not for any reason that he would become in his presence some kind of deterrent to violence. It is the extent to which that he has experienced violence that he would want to bring his example of understanding peace, kindness, and compassion. And my brother is no whining liberal, he is a hero. In his military capacity as a bomb-disabling leader he saved hundreds of lives.

And what constitutes a criminal? It is for our legal and mental health system to determine.

Otherwise the tragedy of Newtown, CT deeply saddens me.

Comments

No where does it say you have the right to not be offended. I am a veteran as well. I thank him for his service. Why does arming veterans offend you anyway? IMO your thinking is what is wrong with the country. We need to destroy these evil people, prison? why stay there for life and the tax payer feeds them etc? I


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