In Philly, coping with Sandy Hook

Even the Philadelphia School District’s top security official was affected by the Connecticut school shootings.

“We’re all shaken by it,” said Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey.  “Everyone’s on edge.”

On Monday, Dorsey and other top officials sat down to evaluate the district’s safety needs.

“Are we as safe as we can be?  Are our perimeters secure?  Are we making sure that our doors are locked after intake in the morning?  Are we identifying any visitors in the building? If, God forbid, something like that were to happen, our students, our staff, our administrators, are they in a state of preparedness? Are there things we should be doing differently?” Dorsey said.

The first defense, Dorsey stressed, is prevention, and that’s what the district is focusing on.

All district high schools have metal detectors or scanning equipment, and all buildings have secured entrances. 

But the Sandy Hook entrances were secured, too.

“There are metal detectors, scans, but it happened so quickly,” Dorsey said.

School staff and others have been calling her office for guidance, Dorsey said, and her staff have been reassuring them.

“We’re reiterating - we have cameras, we have phones, we have perimeter security,” Dorsey said.  City police provide extra security during school openings and closings.

School psychologists, too, dealt with the Sandy Hook tragedy.

At Greenfield Elementary in Center City, veteran school psychologist Holly Cohen said she had conversations with a few teachers about how their kids were handling the news.

"I just told them, 'Be watchful. If there's any rumors, quell them. Little kids don't need to know much, and in older kids, say, 'This is what I know, this is what I know not to be true. These are normal feelings to feel. How do you feel?'"

The Sandy Hook tragedy was far enough removed that most students didn't react much to it, unless television news had been on a lot over the weekend, or if they had experienced loss in their own lives recently, Cohen said.

Tracy Paskiewicz, another district psychologist, also dealt with the issue in her two West Philadelphia schools.

"We try to bring the conversation back to safety - 'We're safe here at school, the kids in this building are safe.' And we also try to keep schedules normal. We want to talk about what happened, but we don't it to be the main focus," said Paskiewicz.

Paskiewicz and Rosalyn Pitts, another Philadelphia school psychologist working at two elementary schools in South Philadelphia, both suggested keeping it simple, looking to children for clues about what they know, using developmentally appropriate language, answering questions honestly but without overly disturbing detail.

"All they want to know is, 'Am I safe?'" Pitts said. "My biggest thing is: just turn off the television."

At the independent Philadelphia School in Center City, head of school Amy Purcell Vorenberg said she felt it was also important to support the adults in the building - many of whom are dealing with this kind of tragedy for the first time in their professional lives.

Vorenberg said she spent much of her weekend answering worried emails from parents and teachers who felt anxious about how to support students on Monday.

So in consultation with the school's two psychologists, Vorenberg convened an impromptu staff meeting before school. She asked her faculty "not to conduct any large-group meetings or conversations, but to be really careful listeners."

Teachers talked to students one-on-one, reassuring them, telling the students who brought up the shootings on the playground that "we're not going to talk about that today at school."

After student dropoff, Vorenberg held a meeting for parents who wanted to ask questions about how the school was handling the tragedy.

"I've dealt with things ranging from requests to hire armed guards and providing locks on our doors and windows to, 'We really need to hug the teachers and thank them,'" Vorenberg said.

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