After Newtown, A Parent's Goodbye Kiss Feels Different

Rick Green
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

Monday morning, parents must do what for many will still feel excruciating.

Send their children to school. And try not to worry.

What a regrettable milestone. The safest place isn't that safe at all.

Locked doors, intercom buzzer systems, a cop in every high school and millions of dollars in security improvements cannot stop the terrorists who live among us.

I watched Sunday as the ubiquitous Lt. J. Paul Vance promised us schools will open and they will be safe. I listened as a leading educator said we are all at risk. A school security expert told me it's the world we live in now.

One administrator who remembers the feeling after Columbine told me he, too, is anxious about Monday morning, the first school day after things changed.

This Monday morning, police officers will be among the first to welcome children back at schools throughout Connecticut. It is the horrible new normal.

"Our hearts are broken, but our hands are extended," state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said.

He spent Sunday meeting with educators from Sandy Hook Elementary, the first time teachers had come together since Friday's tragedy.

Pryor said the state has brought in a special consultant, David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, to work with Newtown. Schonfeld has prepared "prompts for classroom teachers across the state" to stimulate discussion, Pryor said.

What sticks with all of us are the Friday morning parting words of Robbie Parker, the father of 6-year-old Emilie, one of 20 children to die in the attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"She said she loved me, and I gave her a kiss and I was out the door."

We've all done it hundreds of times, without a second thought. After Newtown, it feels different.

"We do everything we can to make sure my kids and your kids are safe. That's what I've been thinking about all weekend,'' said Tom Moore, assistant superintendent in West Hartford and a former high school principal. "We are all so nervous. This makes the unthinkable thinkable.

"The culture of fear that we have to operate under takes away the innocence of kids and the happiness."

This new culture means schools where drilling for a gun attack becomes as important as the regular fire drill. What saved lives at Sandy Hook wasn't merely heroism. It was the essential fact that these brave Newtown teachers knew what to do. Within seconds of the first shots, they were doing what security experts have trained educators to do without thinking in the years since school attacks have become almost what we expect. Because of that, dozens of children from Sandy Hook Elementary are alive today.

What would save more lives? Armed guards and searches at the door are one solution that works, most of the time, in Israel and at many of our own government buildings. A careful evaluation of every person before they can regularly enter a school — is there a restraining order? a gun permit? a history of mental illness? — would give teachers and principals a lot less to worry about.

But do we really need to add this to the growing list of responsibilities for teachers and principals? Very likely.

Without a doubt, we will soon see new restrictions on who can even enter a school, let alone whether they can travel to a classroom. That is the grim new reality.

"You need to look at all people,'' said Michael W. Wanik, a security consultant who has spent a career making office and workplaces safer. "Who belongs and who doesn't?''

The best schools are welcoming, happy places. That's what we risk losing under this new normal. When a classroom of 6-year-olds is slain, we are at a tipping point.

Before Newtown. And after.

"There is not a parent in this country who is not going to worry about sending their child to school tomorrow morning,'' Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, told my colleagues at FOX CT Sunday morning. "We are all at risk here unless we do something about taking guns away from people who do this kind of thing."

Anything that make assault weapons harder to acquire is an important, urgent beginning. Making sure mentally ill people have access to help, in a time of budget cuts and scaling back, will be even harder. We also must remember what Moore, the West Hartford administrator, reminded me: "Schools need to be happy."

"Children's resiliency always stuns us,'' he said. "We need to make sure that kids know they are safe."

It starts Monday morning, with that goodbye kiss.

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