District reviews policies after Connecticut massacre

As they update their schools' safety plans in the wake of Friday's deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, Del Norte County principals are focusing on the policy regarding visitors on campus.

District officials also plan to hold a special drill this school year, asking students and staff to practice the procedures for a lockdown or an evacuation, said Superintendent Don Olson. During a lockdown, teachers close and lock classroom doors, cover windows and get the students to one side of the room out of sight.

In the hours following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and six adults dead, Olson fielded several calls from parents about the district's safety policies and procedures. Olson said he will be sending a letter to parents this week to let them know that the district is reviewing its safety policies.

"Ironically, a month ago we scheduled a safety trainer to be here yesterday for a principals' meeting," Olson said Wednesday. "Every year we do an annual update to our safety plans. We did that in conjunction with (Del Norte County Emergency Services Manager) Cindy Henderson so we're as well prepared as possible for any kind of emergency."

School safety trainer Dennis Louy will visit each Del Norte County site this school year, Olson said. Principals will work on their school safety plans with staff and will seek input from community members and parents.

"We're required once a year to have some form of a school community meeting," Olson said. "We'll meet and share our plan with the school site council or advertise an evening to share the safety plan with interested community members and parents."

The district has also begun discussions with the city to bring back the school resource officer at Del Norte High School, Olson said. The position was eliminated earlier this year due to budget cuts.

"That will be a discussion point that comes back up in the budgeting process this year," Olson said. "It's always better to be more safe than not, but there's no guarantee that an officer is a deterrent."

As for addressing the emotional impact the shooting may have on the district's students, Olson said he had forwarded links on coping tools to principals and teachers. The district's counselors and psychologists have also been made available, he said. When a teacher, student or community member dies, the district deploys its counselors and psychologists to meet with classes that have been most affected, Olson said.

Olson said the district will be hiring more counselors at its schools using a federal grant as a way of targeting bullying. Each of the larger schools will have a counselor while the smaller school sites will share a counselor, Olson said.

"I would say collectively that everyone just expressed overwhelming grief about what happened," Olson said of the local response to the Connecticut tragedy. "Attacks on children are just unfathomable and they're very disturbing to me as an educator and most of my colleagues are the same way. It bothers us and it stays with us for a long time."

In Sacramento, Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public schools, joined the California Emergency Management Agency in sending a joint message to all school districts asking them to take another close look at their safety plans and prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.