Newtown tragedy prompts increased security at local schools

Merriann Yering arrived at the Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School in Groton well ahead of the end of the school day Friday and waited impatiently at the entrance for the dismissal bell.

Eyes still red from crying over news of the tragic events in Newtown, she said it took all her willpower not to immediately drive to the school and pull her twin 9-year-old boys, Thomas and Jordan, from class early.

"As a parent, your heart breaks. I just wanted to go get my babies," she said in tears.

Her boys were likely to be met with an unusually long and tight bear hug from Mom when the school day finally ended.

"I'm going to have one in one arm and one in the next arm," Yering said. "Their feet may not ever touch the ground. They're sleeping in my bed tonight."

School and law enforcement officials across the region said they were sending thoughts and prayers to a grieving community in Newtown while considering what can be done in their towns to keep children safe.

"This is a tragedy that is beyond comprehension for any school or district administrator," Montville Superintendent of Schools Pamela Aubin said. "We've all taken steps and performed the lockdown drills and all of that. Not everything can be prevented. It's just awful."

Vigils were held in New London and Mystic and at Connecticut College Friday night. New London Mayor Daryl Finizio ordered city flags lowered to half staff.

The Waterford Police Department posted an officer at each school Friday. City of Groton police officers were seen monitoring dismissals at both West Side Middle School and Scared Heart School. They also made a patrol check at the Marine Science Magnet High School. Kevin Seery, the town's resident state trooper, was stationed outside Salem School to reassure students.

The Lyme–Old Lyme school district will have increased security at school events. East Lyme will hold an emergency faculty meeting Monday morning to discuss how to best help students grappling with questions and concerns following the tragedy, according to Superintendent James Lombardo. There will be increased police presence at all district schools next week, and all school doors will be locked during the school day.

Beginning Monday in Stonington, police officers will be assigned to go in and out of the schools throughout the school day.

"It's important that teachers, students and parents know that their safety and security is the number one priority for us," said Stonington Capt. Jerry Desmond, adding that such tragedies always make residents wonder how secure their schools are.

Groton Interim Superintendent John Ramos said "it's a natural reaction" for parents to want to drive to school and get their children.

"We're far enough from the actual tragedy to not to have to go into any kind of lockdown mode. But at the same time, everybody's sensibilities and practical instincts as related to security are heightened in a time like this," Ramos said. "There is the possibility of a spillover. The enormousness of this tragedy is obviously going to reverberate across the state."

Ramos, and officials in other school districts, said social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors and other school support staff will be made available to children and adults, should the need arise. He said that is something likely to be addressed over the weekend.

"You don't want to overreact, either," Ramos said. "If we see this is impacting our students, we will do what's appropriate."

Local school officials were also thinking of Janet Robinson, the Newtown superintendent of schools, who previously had worked in Preston.

'They're babies'

Yering, the Groton parent, said she should could not imagine what parents in Newtown were going through.

"It just doesn't make sense," Yering said. "It happened at a place just like this school. They're babies."

Yering glanced through the front entrance at some of the young students inside.

"Look at those little ones," she said. "They're so happy. They don't know what kind of ugly world is out there."

Dr. Amarilis Talavera-Briggs, a child psychologist at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, said it is important to reassure children they are safe following an act of violence like this.

She said that parents should begin this process by determining what information their children have heard about the shootings. They can help alleviate their sense of fear by keeping televisions off, she added.

Talavera-Briggs said it's normal to hug or comfort a child more in the first 24 hours after such an incident, but it is important to maintain a sense of normalcy.

"Certainly, we can express concern. We also want to let them know that we are calm, and in our little family unit, we can protect them," Talavera-Briggs said. "Children misconstrue reality sometimes. They think it's happening right next door."

Staff Writer Kimberly Drelich contributed to this report.

g.smith@theday.com

jeff.johnson@theday.com

j.wojtas@theday.com

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