Stevens County resident Velena Hawthorne doesn’t have television, but her family does have Internet. So last Friday, as she was idly glancing over the contents of Google news, she saw the headlines saying there had been a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT.
As she scrolled down the article, she saw that the majority of those killed were children, all under the age of 10. She gasped audibly, causing her boyfriend, Tyler Peterson, to come in from the next room to see what was wrong.
“I made some joke like, ‘One of the kids get on a site they shouldn’t?’” says Peterson, father to the couple’s two children, ages 9 and 13. “Then I came in and saw her (Valena) and she was crying …really quiet. I kept asking what was wrong, but she just pointed at the computer. I knew it had to be something bad, because she just doesn’t cry. I started to read the story and it felt like someone punched me in the gut.”
It was a natural reaction that was felt across the nation after a 20-year-old gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. The six adults killed were school staff (all women). The shooter turned the gun on himself, committing suicide when first responders arrived at the scene.
The tragedy received a tearful address from President Barack Obama and has once again triggered the heated debate of gun control across the country. Educators and parents throughout the U.S. remain on edge as children returned to school this week.
Sandy Hook Elementary remains closed indefinitely.
Why would someone do something like this?
Hawthorne and Taylor’s children are back east in Maine visiting their grandparents for the holidays. The couple says they spoke with them Friday evening.
“My daughter was asking me why someone would do something like this and I wish I honestly knew,” says Hawthorne. “We home-school them, but at the same time that doesn’t guarantee that your child will always be safe and won’t be exposed to horrible things. I can only imagine how those parents in Newtown feel.”
Area educators also extended their sympathies to the victims and their loved ones.
In an email sent to the Statesman-Examiner on Monday, Kettle Falls School District Superintendent Greg Goodnight wrote, “Our hearts go out to the families and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary.” Chewelah School District Superintendent Rick Linehan echoed that sentiment, saying, “Our hearts and prayers go out to all the victims.”
Colville School District Superintendent Michael Cashion addresses the tragedy in his weekly column, Supe’s Corner.
“Our teachers and counselors stand ready to help our students with their emotions concerning this deeply disturbing event,” Goodnight says. “Until we admit as a nation that schools can offer little resistance to heavily-armed suicidal murderers, meaningful change is unlikely. Cuts to the mental health network and police have left gaps in the safety net that schools are clearly not designed to handle.”
Trying to prevent
Goodnight adds that Kettle Falls School District has plans in place to help mitigate the effect of violence and performs drills of those plans periodically.
“For obvious reasons, we do not discuss those plans with the public,” states Goodnight.
Linehan says school administrators met with staff at Gess Elementary last Friday afternoon. The teachers had been in class all morning, so none of them had heard about the tragedy at Sandy Hook at that point.
“When they heard about it, everyone was pretty emotional,” says Linehan.
Administrators also met with middle school and high school staff the same day after school and went over safety policies and procedures. Linehan says visitors to any of the three school sites are required to check in at the front office, since all other exterior doors are locked. All of the schools periodically conduct Intruder Alert Drills where students and teachers practice being on lockdown.
“We also have Emergency and Disaster Management plans that we have to go over every so often,” says Linehan. “But honestly, if someone were to walk into our schools with a high-powered rifle and start shooting, it would take heroes to stop them, just like it did in Newtown.”
Stevens County Sheriff Kendle Allen says that his deputies undergo Active Shooter Training where officers simulate a school shooting and practice neutralizing the situation.
Allen points to the Columbine High School Shooting of 1999 in Colorado for revamping the way law enforcement responds to such an event.
“It used to be that local law enforcement would show up to a scene like that and then wait for the SWAT Team,” says Allen. “Columbine taught us a lot. “The longer you wait, the more people get shot. Now the first officers on the scene have to get in there and deal with the suspect. Hopefully, the officer has the element of surprise and can quickly contain the situation, but no one knows how something like this is going to go exactly.”