Central Coast teachers reassure kids in wake of Connecticut shooting

As his students completed their final exam in AP European history Friday morning, one Arroyo Grande High School history teacher tried to come to grips with the shocking news of a mass shooting at an elementary school on the other side of the country.

The students, having just started their test when the news broke, hadn’t heard yet of the killings. But Jim Gregory, a longtime teacher with the Lucia Mar school district, wanted to break the news as gently as possible.

Gregory put together a slide, which he showed students during the last few minutes of class, after they’d finished their test. Besides basic information about the shooting — 18 children and nine adults dead, at that time — it contained a personal note as well.

“The only good, for me, that comes out of this tragedy is that it reminds me of how much you mean to me — even when I glare at you or yell at you,” he wrote. “In the end, the fundamental reason I teach history is to help you to understand, on a deeper level, how precious human life is.”

He continued: “Your lives are precious to me, and to all of us at AGHS. We teach and work here because we love you.”

Gregory said his students were shocked; some were angry. Some gave him a hug, and he suggested that their mom or dad could probably use a hug tonight, too.

While checking Facebook, he said he noticed that some of his former students with young children were fighting the urge to pick up their kids early from elementary school.

“I think so many of us feel so much more vulnerable than we did when I was growing up,” Gregory said. “School was a place where you were supposed to be safe, and that’s not the case anymore.”

At Paso Robles High School, students were texting and messaging each other about the tragedy, and civics and government teacher Geoffrey Land said he learned about it from them.

“It’s a new reality,” Land said. The transmission of information now is “fluid.”

He said he veered off topic — global warming — in his classes to talk about the shootings and will do so again next week. 

He said it’s the not the first time he’s had this sort of conversation. 

“Unfortunately, it’s come up before,” Land said.

In fact, he said, part of the horror is that shooting tragedies have become almost commonplace — so much so that police visited the campus last week to talk about how to handle school shootings.

He said he has asked students “what it’s like to be living in a world where there have to be plans” against a massacre on campus.

“It’s one more thing for them (students) to be terrified about,” Land said.

Land said he wasn’t shocked about the Connecticut shootings because such things have become all too common. But he added that the “sad thing for me” is that the students “don’t even skip a beat.”

They, too, have become inured. He said they, and perhaps society at large, may be suffering from “outrage overload” and are going into psychological “survivor mode.” 

The youth of the victims in this case, he said, struck “everybody as being particularly disturbing.”

Paso Robles schools Superintendent Kathy McNamara posted a message on the district’s website.

“We need everyone to be on alert, as we never know in this world of rapid change what may happen next. Our primary focus is to keep our students safe and educated. One lesson we can take away from this tragedy is that we need to take each and every drill and safety procedure very seriously.” 

Planning ahead

The county’s 10 districts had safety plans in place even before the fatal shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. In the years since then, regulators and educators have sharpened their emergency planning even more.

School officials throughout the county regularly hold drills to prepare for emergencies like school violence, including an annual lockdown procedure.

Per the California Education Code, elementary school officials have students conduct a drill once a quarter in which they take cover under their desks. At middle and high schools, the drill is done once a semester, said Raynee Daley, Lucia Mar’s assistant superintendent of business.

In April 2011, Atascadero High School conducted a large-scale emergency exercise that went above and beyond regular drills. About 100 students participated with local law enforcement to simulate a mass casualty incident, said Principal E.J. Rossi.

“That was a great opportunity to bring together Atascadero police, regional SWAT teams and others to see how all agencies would work together if, God forbid, something happened,” he said.

County schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said the Connecticut shooting will likely prompt administrators to ensure that their emergency procedures are up to date and that people are familiar with them.

“The issue of how much physical safety (i.e. fences, gates, metal detectors, cameras, etc.) to have at schools is always a balance between safety and creating a ‘fortress atmosphere,’ ” Crocker said in an email. “Of course, when a tragedy like this happens, safety measures become highlighted. Schools seem to be a target, but this violence can occur anywhere.”

A review of Tribune stories from the past two decades shows numerous incidents in which a student has brought a gun onto a school campus — but no injuries resulted.

Daley said Lucia Mar administrators sent a notice to each principal at the district’s 18 schools about the shooting. The notice, in part, reminded them to make sure they’ve gone over safety procedures with their staff.

“It’s an incredible tragedy, and you just ache for the school and the families and everyone who deals with that aftermath,” she said.