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Educators and parents headed to school Wednesday heavy hearted and still reeling from news of Tuesday’s wanton slaying of 19 children and two teachers in a Texas elementary school, the deadliest school shooting since 2012.
The deaths at the hand of an 18-year-old with no connection to the school prompted local divisions to once again to offer resources for educators and families on discussing the random violence with their children and to seek help, if needed.
“This message is in many ways a painful repetition of what we have said in response to earlier shootings across our country, including 10 days ago at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo and at schools such as Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida or Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut,” Charlottesville officials wrote in a message to families on Tuesday night.
Charlottesville schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. and board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres signed the letter to families.
Division officials shared a resource sheet on how to talk with children about race and community violence, which was developed by school counselors in August 2017. It has been shared several times since.
On social media, Gurley said it was OK for teachers to pause lesson plans and take care of themselves and their students.
“Students need developmental play, [social-emotional learning] conversations, and spaces to ask difficult questions,” he wrote.
For Christa Bennett, sending her children to school every day is terrifying. She said she makes a conscious thought to hug her children each morning and tell them goodbye in case that’s the last time she sees them. This morning she felt raw as she sent them off to school.
“It is not lost on me that people who are not white and privileged have carried the fear of violence, of their babies being snatched from them, for forever in our country,” Bennett wrote on social media. “All our children need to be safe. All of us need to be safe. There’s really nothing more important than that.”
She said focusing at work was hard Wednesday as she worried about her children. She talked about the shooting with older child, who is in middle school, but not with her elementary-aged child.
Following the Buffalo shooting, Buford Middle students walked out of class last week to call for racial justice and to stand in solidarity with the victims. Bennett said seeing students take a stand gives her hope for the future.
“We have to have hope to keep on living,” she said.
Other local parents on social media talked about how they cried as they dropped their children off at school and made sure to say goodbye to their kids. Teachers shared their fears about going to work Wednesday and experiences during recent active-shooter drills.
Christine Esposito, a teacher in Charlottesville, shared on Facebook how she planned to approach students.
“I’m going to lie convincingly to every child I see today,” she said. “I’m going to sell that lie with my whole body because I don’t know what else to do. I’m going to assure every student who asks that we’ll keep them safe, all the while knowing that teachers and schools don’t actually have that power.”
She added that teachers will keep them safe to the best of their abilities.
“All that means is that we’ll die trying to protect them,” she wrote. “No amount of a teacher’s love or a teacher’s physical body is going to protect a child from an AR-15.”
According to news reports, the two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, were shot while protecting their students.
As has been the case after previous school shootings, Virginia state officials turned their attention to school safety and security measures.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin met with state officials Wednesday to talk about school safety. A Youngkin spokeswoman told media outlets that the governor has asked for an evaluation of steps already taken as well as future steps to ensure schools are safe.
Jillian Balow, the state superintendent for public instruction, said state officials must “review all the facts as they come to light and determine what steps we can take in Virginia to better protect our students, teachers and school communities.”
Following the deadly 2018 school shooting in Parkland, state lawmakers formed the House Select Committee on School Safety.
In its December 2018 report, the committee recommended changes to the role of school counselors, requiring mental and emotional health to be taught in schools, more funding for school divisions to purchase security equipment and school resource officers, among others.
In 2020, Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions removed armed police officers from school buildings following protests over race profiling and policing. On Wednesday, Albemarle County schools Superintendent Matthew Haas told families in a message that the schools work closely with the county police.
“Our strongest resource remains our partnership with the Albemarle County Police Department,” Haas wrote. “We communicate regularly with the department’s senior leadership on the security of our buildings, potential threats, and deployment of officers in and around our buildings.”
In recent years, the division has made several security upgrades at buildings and changed front entrances to buildings so that visitors must go through the front office. The division also implemented Anonymous Alerts, which allows students and families to report safety concerns.
Haas said the tool is one of the division’s most significant assets to identify and deter threats. He encouraged anyone concerned about the behavior, circumstance, or social media posts of a student, employee, or someone else associated with a school to make a report through Anonymous Alerts.
“After each of these horrific events, we inevitably learn from the investigations that the person responsible showed signs to peers, family, school officials, or police of being a potential threat,” Haas wrote. “In cooperation with the Albemarle County Police Department, we take every potential threat seriously, and we will put safety first every time.”
Albemarle County and Charlottesville, in an effort to boost mental health support for students, have hired social and emotional counselors at schools and implemented a social-emotional learning curriculum.
The city school division also has improved access control to its buildings, including updated door-locking systems.
“Though it doesn’t feel like it right now, we remind ourselves and you that schools remain one of the safest places for young people,” Charlottesville officials wrote. “Let us join together to make sure that the schools of tomorrow are even safer.”