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School officials, parents wary after tragedy

As Newtown, Conn., gathered Monday for the first funerals of young shooting victims, local school officials took to the difficult task of assuring worried parents and assessing safety lessons they could take from Friday’s tragedy.

In email inboxes and on district websites, letters from superintendents and other statements from administrators laid out the safety procedures of schools.

Districts didn’t yet have definitive answers about whether the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history will cause drastic security changes.

Across the county, districts felt the heat from parents.

In Harvard District 50, a .22-caliber shell casing found by maintenance staff on the cafeteria floor of Crosby Elementary School caused administrators to keep students in their classrooms for more than an hour. District 50 Superintendent Lauri Tobias sent a message to the school’s parents, prompting some to pick their children up early.

Elsewhere, in Carpentersville-based District 300, local police provided a “visual sense of presence” during drop-off and pickup of students, and made frequent passes through schools throughout the day.

“We are as safe today as we were Friday,” District 300 Safety Officer Gary Chester said. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to look for lessons learned from what happened on that terrible day.”

Chester said staff reaction to an armed intruder will determine the depth of a tragedy, and he praised the efforts of the staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. District 300 sent a memo to staffers Friday reminding them to practice established safety procedures such as making sure exterior doors are locked and making eye contact with people outside the school before buzzing them in.

But little can be done to stop a suicidal person armed with automatic weapons, Chester said.

“Once that shooter decided to come on campus, it would be difficult to stop that attack, if not impossible,” he said.

Woodstock District 200 Superintendent Ellyn Wrzeski sent an email Friday to staff, families and community members in the district, saying the district will review safety plans in light of the school shooting.

On Monday, the district placed social workers at schools and urged students to take advantage if they were concerned or struggling with the recent events.

“We’re letting students initiate conversations today,” District 200 spokeswoman Carol Smith said.

As of midafternoon Monday, Smith said, no students had used the service at schools she’d heard from.

She added that the district is telling parents to make sure their contact information is up-to-date so they would know immediately – through a mass message – should something happen.

“We’re also just reminding visitors to our schools, parents, that they be not offended if they’re asked for identification” when entering a school, Smith said.

But not all parents are satisfied with how schools handled the early aftermath of the tragedy.

In Harvard, where the .22-caliber shell casing was found in Crosby Elementary School, Brian and Roxanne Connors decided to pick up their 6-year-old after notification that students were held in their classrooms.

Roxanne Connors said parents, including her husband, were allowed to walk into the school without being checked. Her husband was wearing a hunting knife on his belt, she said. He was told backpacks and lockers weren’t checked.

“I was hoping that I was not overreacting by going to the schools, but I don’t think so now,” Connors said. “I think I feel secure in this community and that nothing is going to happen here, but you never know. We can’t take that chance with our children.”

Crosby Elementary was never under lockdown and police officers didn’t check lockers or backpacks, District 50 spokesman Bill Clow confirmed. He said police were looking for “anything suspicious or anything out of place.”

“We were already planning to do a precautionary walk-through of all of our schools,” Superintendent Tobias wrote to parents and staff Monday afternoon on the district’s website. “Because of this discovery, we did a more thorough inspection of Crosby with the Harvard Police Department, while students stayed in their classrooms and proceeded with classroom activities. Nothing was found, and all students are safe.”

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