After Connecticut shooting, local Jewish day schools assess security

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Ligh

In the wake of an elementary school shooting in Connecticut that has horrified the nation, local Jewish educational institutions are reviewing safety procedures and advising parents on how to speak with their children about the incident.

“We were closed on Friday so today is really the first time we’ve had an opportunity as a school and a staff to address it,” said Rabbi Avi Greene, head of school at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy. 

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“We reviewed with our teachers all of our ongoing policies and procedures for security including lockdown procedures,” he added.

Friday’s killing spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 20 students dead, all of them 6- and 7-year-olds. The violence came at the hands of 20-year-old Adam Lanza, a troubled man with murky motives who apparently murdered his mother before embarking on the rampage, which ended when he took his own life. 

Greene said that he couldn’t discuss specific security measures at Epstein or if changes had been made after news of the shooting. But he said the school was committed to providing a safe environment for students. 

“All I can say is that I’m very thankful that both the Olivette Police Department and the (St. Louis) County Police have been by to speak with us and give us their support,” he said. “We appreciate that tremendously.”

Greene said that guidance from a national school counselors group recommended schools address the issue if students brought it up by acknowledging what occurred and assuring them their school was safe.

Often families make different decisions about how much to tell children in such situations.

“Especially since we deal with elementary-age students, in many cases they may not know what’s going on and their parents don’t necessarily need them to know what’s going on,” he said.

Children, however, aren’t the only ones who need support. Teachers themselves are reeling from the incident, which left six educators dead, some of them perishing while trying to protect their students.

“They’ve taken it very much to heart,” said Greene of his school’s faculty. “They can relate to the teachers who were there. A number of teachers I spoke to said they sort of imagined in their mind’s eye, where in their own classroom they might hide their children if such a tragic event occurred.”

At Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in West County, Head of School Cheryl Maayan said she held a “mini-support group” in her office for staff on the first day back.

“The teachers need a collective hug,” she said. “Everyone working in the school is rattled by the situation.”

Ironically, SMJCS was already in the process of an ongoing security revamp when the Connecticut tragedy occurred. 

“Emotional and physical security for our students is a very high priority,” said Maayan. “Over the summer, we revised our crisis plan. We worked with the Creve Coeur fire and police departments on that plan and last spring we had a security audit by a third party provider in cooperation with B’nai Amoona.”

Maayan was previously head of Saul Mirowitz-Reform Jewish Academy, which recently combined with the local Solomon Schechter school to form SMJCS, a joined institution located on the B’nai Amoona campus.

She said some upgrades had already been completed and others would be done in the near future though she could not comment on details. An email blast to families noted that specifics could be shared in private.

She said she’d had several inquiries from parents, most of them asking the best way to talk to their children, a topic Maayan’s email addressed.

“With young children, 7 and under, we recommend that you only share in general terms if your child initiates the conversation,” it said. “Rather than create images for your child, you can ask her or him, ‘what did you hear?’ ‘what did you think about that?’ ‘how does that make you feel?’”

She said different parents have different views on if and how their children should be told so the issue would not be addressed formally in class.

“What we found is that very few children brought it up at all today,” she said. “We just had dismissal and I went around to talk to the teachers and there were maybe five kids who were aware of the situation and brought it up in conversation. Each time they were told that we can talk about it privately but we are not going to talk about it as a whole class.”

However, a special prayer has been added to t’fillot this week and the flag will be kept at half mast.

She said adults sometimes assume that children think and feel the same way about events as they do but since grown-ups are more attuned to images in the media, that’s not always the case.

“I think it’s harder for us than it is for the kids,” she said.

Dr. Dan Weinstein, a licensed psychologist in Clayton who frequently works with children, said there are divergent ideas about how best to address issues like Newtown. One, he said, is to avoid the topic unless it is broached by the child, hoping the youngster won’t hear. He leans more towards the other option however.

“It’s better to tell them, the reason being that I think they are very likely to hear it from somewhere,” said the Shaare Emeth congregant. “They are going to hear it in the store or from one of their peers talking about it. I think it’s better coming from the parents who understand their kids better and can actually educate their children about sharing difficult truths and honoring the ability and right of those kids to know.”

However, Weinstein said parents should avoid bringing in too many details, especially with younger children. He advises that youngsters should not be pressured to feel a certain way about the shooting and should be informed that the situation, while tragic, is very rare and that they are protected by parents, police, teachers and other adults.

“Kids, when they are very young, are extremely egocentric so their first reaction is going to be ‘Could this happen to me?’ and they are going to worry about that,” he said.

Weinstein also said it’s important for moms and dads to be aware of their own emotional state during such a discussion. Seeing a parent cry or display fear will upset the child and may lead him or her to think a similar event might strike them.

Whatever course a parent chooses, not immersing oneself in the incessant coverage is good advice in any event.

“You have a certain threshold and once you meet that threshold, you should turn the TV off,” he said.