The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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December 17, 2012

Local schools react to tragedy

— Many school districts in the region were stepping beyond the norm on Monday to make sure every student had someone to talk to following Friday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.

Students in the Forest Hills School District in Sidman were urged to wear green and white or blue and gold shirts to school Monday reflecting the colors of the Sandy Hook and the larger Newtown School District.

The Penn Cambria School District posted a letter for parents and teachers on its website providing tips on talking to children and answering questions about violence.

The Blacklick Valley School District was taking a low-key approach to the violence, but has counselors available for anyone needing help,

“We’re not bringing it to the forefront with the students,” said Superintendent John Mastillo.

But district officials were bringing to the forefront with staff the need to follow all security procedures in place, Mastillo said.

“If a student should want to talk about it, we have staff here,” he said.

The Newtown incident has prompted local educators to re-examine procedures already in place and determine if more should be done.

Penn Cambria Superintendent Mary Beth Whited has instructed the district’s facilities manager to determine whether anything can be done to heighten security at the schools in Gallitzin, Cresson and Lilly.

Richland School District Superintendent Tom Fleming took a proactive approach to assure parents he and staff were doing all they can to keep their children safe.

Computerized telephone messages went out around 6 p.m. Sunday, asking parents that if they discuss the Sandy Hook incident to assure students that the district is working to provide a safe learning environment.

On Monday morning, the administration met with staff, emphasizing that they should be there for the students and invite them to seek counseling.

“At this point I am not aware of any student who came in for counseling help,” Fleming said toward the end of the day.

Richland, as with other districts, received calls from some parents who were just checking in, he said.

The Greater Johnstown School District’s efforts were aimed at keeping the routine as normal as possible for students, Mike Dadey, assistant principal and safety coordinator for the district, said.

Reminders went out to staff and administration outlining security procedures and how to answer any questions posed by students.

Guidance counselors at all schools were also on alert, Dadey said.

In the Ferndale Area School District, guidance counselors and principals went into each classroom, kindergarten through sixth grade, not to speak of the specific incident, but to offer words of assurance, Superintendent Carol Kakabar said.

“We were making sure the kids felt comfortable and safe,” she said.

There were no questions from the youngest among the students, but some in fifth and sixth grades had questions, she said.

At the close of the day on Monday, a letter went home with students. It listed hints on how parents could best handle children’s questions.

Today, the district administrative staff will meet to review current practices and policies, she said.

Meanwhile, Forest Hills Superintendent Ed Bowser said that reminding children that school usually is a safe place is paramount.

“We wanted to reassure them that this is a safe educational environment,” he said. “We want to assure them that they are safe here.”

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