Locals react to massacre

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Public safety: Reaction subdued but visible in wake of tragedy

Friday’s school shooting in Connecticut may have happened on the other side of the country, but emergency and school officials here in Los Alamos seemed to know right away that the event hit too close to home for some residents, especially those with children.

On Monday, LAPS Superintendent Dr. Gene Schmidt issued two statements, one to his staff and one to the community at large, about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

His staff memo emphasized how important it is to be in touch with what the students may be feeling about the event, which due its horrific nature and death toll, was a large part of the 24-hour-a-day news cycle all weekend.

“It’s very likely that over the course of the day, students will look to adults for support and comfort in their efforts to understand why events like this happen,” Schmidt said in his statement. He also urged staff members to give him a call.

“Know that I care for each and every one of you,” he said in the statement. “As such, take care of yourselves. If this tragedy strikes you hard, I encourage you to talk with a friend, school counselor or give me a call.”

Schmidt’s second statement was mainly directed to parents as well as the community-at-large.

“As parents and community, we should model calm and control,” he said in the statement. “The National Association of School Psychologists tells us that children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. It is important to reassure children that they are safe and so are the other important adults in their lives.”

In the same statement, Schmidt assured parents that he and his staff were also taking measures to assure the students’ safety, which included beefing up police presence at all schools for this week and coordinating efforts with county officials.

Monday morning, parents with children who logged into the Aspen Elementary School Web site were greeted with an open letter written by the school’s principal, Kathryn Vandenkieboom.

The letter was mainly about assuring parents that their children are safe while they’re in school.

“I want to assure you that we have many safety procedures in place that we practice with the kids often,” she said in the letter. “We attempt to balance practicing too often and not often enough by following state law that requires us to have a fire drill every week during the first month of school, one fire drill per month for the remainder of the year, one Shelter-In-Place drill and one Lockdown drill per year.”

She also talked about the regular police presence at the school, as well as school counselors.

“Although Aspen staff members will not bring up the subject of the tragedy in Connecticut, we are prepared to deal with it if your children ask about it,” she said in the letter.

LAPD Acting Chief Randy Foster said the police were indeed increasing their presence in all the schools this week, but declined to go into further detail for tactical reasons.

“We’re keeping up our normal level of vigilance, but with a little more visibility at the schools,” he said.
Schmidt also plans to have a meeting later this week with district officials and staff to discuss if there’s anything further they should do.

It was just two months ago today that the town conducted Operation Hilltopper, a mock emergency drill that took place at the high school to simulate a would-be gunman shooting students.

Phil Taylor, the county’s emergency management coordinator thought up the exercise, one that took about two years to plan. When reached at his office on Monday, he was in the middle of finishing up the drill’s assessment report.

He said unfortunately, these types of events are something the public is going to have to learn to prepare for as well as accept as a fact of life.

“I was listening to President Obama’s speech the other day and he said that since he’s been president there have been four of these types of events,” Taylor said. “Well, since I became involved in emergency management there have been about a dozen,” he said.

He also added that he was glad Los Alamos conducted the drill when it did, even though using a school shooter scenario wasn’t necessarily about reflecting the times, but more about using a situation that would test every involved agency to its limits. He said he highly recommends other communities do the same thing.

“I think they would be negligent if they didn’t do something like this,” he said. “It was the right thing for us to do.”

Though he felt Los Alamos did reasonably well at responding to such an event in October, Taylor said he has no idea how you could actively 100 percent prevent a school shooting here, or anywhere. His job is to make sure the town’s response mechanism was working properly, he said.

“What causes a kid to go off and shoot a bunch of six-year-olds in school, I don’t have an answer,” Taylor said. “I don’t have nearly enough initials after my name to even begin to address that.”

He added though that just as the entire community of first responders took part in the exercise in October, it’s going to take those same community resources to try and prevent an event like Sandy Hook from happening here.

“If the entire community is involved in the response and recovery, then it seems logical that the entire community ought to be stakeholders in what preventative measures ought to be in place,” he said.