Lily Rosell anxiously weighed whether to take her 7-year-old daughter to school Monday morning, the first day of classes since the Connecticut elementary school massacre that left 20 boys and girls around her child’s age dead.
“I was dreading it,” Rosell said outside her daughter’s Miami elementary school. “I’m panicking here to be honest.”
Rosell said she was looking at vans and any signs of something suspicious.
“Ultimately, if this is going to happen like it is nowadays, it could happen in a movie theater, at the mall, anywhere,” she said. “It’s now about being in the prayer closet a little more often.”
Teachers, parents and students are making an anxious return to school this week after a gunman stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Friday, shooting to death 26 people before killing himself.
School districts across the United States were increasing patrols and reviewing security plans in an effort to ensure students’ safety and calm parents’ nerves. They were also preparing to handle the psychological toll, keeping guidance counselors on standby and offering teachers advice on how to answer difficult questions from students.
“It’s going to be a tough day,” said Richard Cantlupe, an American history teacher at Westglades Middle School in Parkland, Fla., about 50 miles north of Miami. “This was like our 9/11 for school teachers.”
Within the first hours of classes starting Monday there were already reports of schools in several states on lockdown and police officers responding to potentially suspicious incidents.
At least three schools were on alert in Ohio after threatening comments were made on Facebook and Twitter. In Ridgefield, Conn., swarms of parents were picking up their children and police were at each school after a report of a suspicious person at a nearby train station. In Philadelphia, officers responded to a high school after security officers mistook a student’s umbrella for a gun. And in Tampa, Fla., the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office was investigating after a bullet was found on the floor of a school bus.
Chicago resident Melissa Tucker said she was worried about taking her three children to school Monday.
“I actually was going to keep them home today and make further calls to the school to make sure what the school is doing to protect people from coming in and out of the school and making sure the doors are locked at all times,” she said.
Tucker said she was told the school would be taking extra precautions to make sure students were safe.
One school district in western Pennsylvania went so far as to get a court order over the weekend so it could arm officers in each of its schools Monday. The board had voted to arm its police recently but decided to expedite the process. The court order, first reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, affected the Butler Area School District and the South Butler County School District, both about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh.
In Fairfax County, Va., just outside the nation’s capital, elementary school teachers were told to acknowledge the shootings if students brought it up, but to direct discussion of the shootings to home rather than the classroom.
Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said his agency was sending a letter to school superintendents across the state Sunday evening, providing a list of written prompts for classroom teachers to help them address the shooting in Newtown with their students.
“In many instances, teachers will want to discuss the events because they are so recent and so significant, but they won’t necessarily know how to go about it,” he said.
Many schools planned to hold a moment of silence Monday and fly flags at half-staff.
At the Global Concepts Charter School in Lackawanna, N.Y., near Buffalo, Principal David Ehrle fielded calls Monday morning from some parents who told him they’d shielded their young children from news coverage over the weekend and wanted to know whether the kids would hear about it from their teachers. He told them they would not.
“Certainly, you can’t stop kids from talking on the bus or at the lunch table, but as a school we’re not, if you will, sponsoring educating about it,” he said.
Ehrle said teachers at the 655-student, K-8 school were told to assure kids who asked that the school is safe and to refer students to one of the two staff counselors if necessary. Otherwise, the school was making a point to stick to the routines.
“Often, normalcy is the most comforting thing for the students,” he said. “That was the message that we sent out over the weekend to the staff is, that we need to continue on doing what we’ve always done.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Falls Church, Va.; Carla K. Johnson in Chicago; Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; Brett Zongker in Washington; Bob Christie in Phoenix; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; Amy Forliti in Minneapolis; Michelle Nealy in Chicago; Susan Haigh in Norwich, Conn.; Carolyn Thompson in Lackawanna, N.Y.; Samatha Critchell in Ridgefield, Conn.; and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C.