Tense And Poignant Moments Monday At Schools, Bus Stops

The Hartford Courant

— Parents throughout the state said they struggled with a flood of emotions Monday as they brought their students to school or watched them get on the bus.

Dawn Mendoza of Middlefield, the parent of an intermediate school student and an elementary school student, stood with her older daughter at a bus stop Monday morning like she has done since she started school. But this morning was different.

"Dropping her off today, I'm going to be like, 'Do I want to leave her?'" she said. "But we need to go on with normalcy for the children. Part of me wants to lock them up and get through the holidays, but we must go on."

Mendoza said that after she discussed what had happened, her daughter had trouble sleeping for the "first time in years." She added that they have told their younger daughter very little about the tragedy.

"We discussed what happened over the weekend after some deliberation," Mendoza said. "We really limited access to all the media until we could discuss what happened. We discussed what may be discussed today in school and told her if she felt uncomfortable with any discussions going on in the classroom to excuse herself from conversations. She was a little sadder and more solemn going to the bus today."

Across the state, many students had urged each other — via Facebook and Twitter — to wear green and white, the colors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School, as tribute on Monday. UConn basketball players wore green and white patches at their basketball game Monday night, which began with a moment of silence.

Wethersfield High School was awash in green and white ribbons Monday, with students donning the Sandy Hook colors.

Wethersfield Superintendent Michael T. Emmett said that the district's crisis response team met Monday morning, as did faculty and staff. "I think our goal was to try and make today as normal as possible," he said.

Emmett said that some parents had spoken extensively with their children about the shooting deaths in Newtown, while others had chosen to shield their kids from the terrible events.

Some parents made it clear that they wanted to control how much their children knew about the massacre, a request that the district honored, Emmett said.

"We really gauged it (help for individuals) on individual need," he said.

Emmett said that he visited every school Monday and praised teachers, administrators and staff for making the day as routine as possible. At Emerson-Williams Elementary School, students were talking about what was for lunch, monster trucks and Christmas instead of the shootings, he said.

Donna Grubka, the mother of a 6-year-old at Buttonball Elementary in Glastonbury, said that she received emails from the public school system and her daughter's teacher in response to the shootings, stating that there were no plans to discuss the incident during their kindergarten class.

"It's comforting. I'm happy that it's not going to be brought up and that [the teacher and I] are on the same page," she said. "It's just going to create more anxiety and fear, especially because [my daughter] doesn't fully know what happened or why."

Grubka said that her other two children — a 15-year-old in high school and a 13-year-old at the middle school — knew what had transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary, but that the family intentionally kept their 6-year-old away from it. She said she felt that the local elementary school was safe but noted that Friday's events showed that, at times, little will stop a person determined to do harm.

"You can have all of the precautions, but they will get through if they want. It's a random act of violence, and it's scary," Grubka said.

At Hartford Public High School's Law and Government Academy, teachers cried during an emergency staff meeting Monday morning, said Cathy Horton, the school's theme and instructional coach.

Ana Marquez-Greene, the 6-year-old niece of Assistant Principal Taina Amaro, was among the Sandy Hook victims. Students and staff began wearing pink-and-black ribbons Monday in memory of Ana.

In Bloomfield, Superintendent James Thompson spent the morning visiting all of the schools in the district. The plan, Thompson said, was to meet with teachers and staff to discuss how to address the shootings with students and to make sure they knew that there were counselors available to any student or staff member who wanted to talk.

Thompson said there was no request for increased police coverage, but it was evident that more patrol cars were making the rounds.

At Carmen Arace Middle School, where a Bloomfield police car was parked on the sidewalk at the front entrance, Principal Trevor Ellis said the goal of the staff was to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. He said that there were no plans to have teachers bring up the subject unless students did so.

"We had a lot of media coverage and they've been educated on what happened; the kids are just as shocked as we are," Ellis said.

Ellis said he had been approached by one student about the idea of wearing green and white in support of the Sandy Hook students, but he denied the request.

"We want to move forward and stick to our routines," he said.

Art teacher Marc DeNovellis was preparing for his first class of the day.

"I'll be asking if there's anything they'd like to express," DeNovellis said. "I'm trying to figure out what's best for them and myself."

Social studies teacher Marcus Jennings engaged a class in a discussion about the shootings and Newtown, including whether the president should have visited on Sunday night.

One student said "no — your child is dead and he can't do anything to bring them back to life."

But another student countered that "his presence and speech let the people know it was something that affected the whole country."

At the Global Experience Magnet School, the staff held a brief assembly to reassure students that the shooting was an isolated incident. But they were also told to take their safety drills seriously and reminded of the importance of being kind to others.

Bulah Hernandez, who lives in the Laurel Ridge development in Middletown, was waiting with her three elementary school children Monday morning. The children were huddled under her oversized golf umbrella.

"This is very sad. My heart is broken," Hernandez said. "It is different today. I am scared for them. But I am very happy and feel lucky I am sending them to school."

At another nearby bus stop, Middletown's Willow Glen residents Carla Neri and Marci Hahn had just put their elementary school children on the bus and were talking with each other as a drizzly rain fell.

"I just want to be a hermit. It is just horrific," Neri said, calling it a difficult weekend for herself and her child. "I don't know how to explain it or understand it myself. How am I going to talk or explain it to them? I just said things like be aware of your surroundings and listen to your teacher."

Neri said she received an email from the Middletown superintendent that police will be at schools all day and stepping up their presence. Hahn, the mother of a kindergartner and first-grader, said the weekend was spent with no television or radio.

"My hope is they don't hear any more and remain innocent," she said. "And if they do hear something today, I will just tell them as easily as I can when they gethome."

"It's just so sad," Neri said. "I can't imagine what the parents are going through. It was a weekend of lots of hugs at my house."

In West Hartford, Superintendent Karen List said "the sense of normalcy was wonderful" on Monday.

"I was out in front of an elementary school with the principal and a police officer and I watched children skipping and laughing and singing and talking about the 12 Days of Christmas," List said. "The children, especially the young children, appeared to be fine."

But List said she did observe parents wiping their own tears as they dropped off their children. And, she said, there were students in all age groups — from elementary through high school — who sought counseling.

List said that teachers were prepared to talk about the tragedy at Sandy Hook, but that there hadn't been much discussion. On the elementary level, she said, teachers only talked about it if students brought it up. She heard from a high school teacher that with the end of the semester almost here, students were focused on academic work, rather than on what had happened in Newtown.

"The most important thing parents can do," List said, "is to stop the Facebook, stop the television news. ... There are some people who just can't think about anything else and they need to take a break from it."

Like many districts, she said that West Hartford will have an increased police presence all week. "A number of parents thanked police officers for being there," she said. "I think it helps people feel better."

In Manchester, police have also heightened their presence at all schools, and the superintendent is considering an emergency drill to test the current response system.

"We have a very good rapport with the board of education — we talk on a daily basis," Police Chief Marc Montminy said Monday. "We don't want to go into specific details, but I will say there is an increased presence at all our schools, public and private."

Courant staff writers Steve Goode, Christopher Hoffman, Jesse Leavenworth and Shawn Beals contributed to this story.

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