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West central Minn. school officials preparing to talk to students and review their emergency plans

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WILLMAR — Principal Nathan Cox gathered with his staff before school started Monday at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar.

“The unthinkable has happened,” he told them, and they had a conversation about what to say to children who asked about the school shooting that occurred Friday in Newtown, Conn.

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Twenty first-graders and six staff members were murdered Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The shooter also apparently killed his mother before going to the school.

Cox said he told the staff that they didn’t need to “feel the burden of trying to make kids understand how it could happen,” because there’s no way to understand it.

Cox suggested they talk about how sad the shooting was and reassure students that they are safe in their school. They expected to see some students who had watched television coverage throughout the weekend and some who had no idea what had happened.

“I think it was good to get together,” he said. “The staff is in good spirits; it was good to be back with the kids.” He asked staffers to watch out for kids who seemed distracted or upset who might need to speak with a counselor or social worker.

By late morning Monday, the day seemed to be going smoothly, he said.

New London-Spicer Superintendent Paul Carlson said he had spread the word to staff about how to talk to students, too.

“It’s important that we all try to be calm and reassuring, to make sure children know we care for them and will protect them,” he said.

 Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard agreed that there’s no way to try to explain the incident to kids. “I don’t get it,” he said. “There are sick individuals in our society.”

Cox, Carlson and Kjergaard said they were not surprised by the stories of heroic teachers hiding children and shielding kids from the gunman’s bullets. All of them said they would expect that their own staff members would react in the same way if the situation presented itself.

“It’s what we’re called to do,” Cox said, “to grow and protect these kids any way we can.”

Kjergaard said he would like parents to remember that “School is still one of the safest places for a kid to be.”

School districts do what they can to ensure that. Minnesota schools must do five lockdown drills, five fire drills and a tornado drill each year. “We review the plan after every one and make the needed changes,” Kjergaard said.

Security at Willmar’s schools is similar to that at Sandy Hook Elementary, Kjergaard said. Three of the buildings have locked doors with cameras, and approved visitors are buzzed in. The high school has an open door with a monitor sitting inside the door.

Three Willmar police officers work full-time in the schools during the school year. One is stationed at the Senior High, one in the Middle School and one at the Area Learning Center and elementary schools.

New London-Spicer has a full-time Kandiyohi County sheriff’s deputy on duty during the school year.

The school resource officers are a good connection between schools and law enforcement, said Willmar Police Chief Dave Wyffels. His department develops and practices response plans for a wide variety of incidents, including a possible school shooting, he said.

It’s too soon to know if the investigation in Connecticut will yield recommendations for changes in school security, he said. “We’ve certainly got an ear tuned to what’s going on.”

A change in police procedure would not necessarily require a change in a school’s emergency plan, he said. If needed, the school resource officers would be able to implement changes to a school’s plan within a week, Wyffels said.

Security is important, but a person intent on getting into a school building will find a way to do it, Wyffels said. “The point I want to drive home to people is never get a false sense of security.”

Kjergaard said he’s not sure how much more security would be appropriate for a school building. “You can’t turn a school into a prison,” he said.

Carlson agreed that increasing security would be difficult. “Schools are not built to prevent people from coming in,” he said, but to be welcoming to the community.

Going too far with security tends to isolate schools from the community and can shut out parents and volunteers, Kjergaard said. “If anybody has any good ideas on where you draw the line, I’m open to ideas.”

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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