Jewish schools respond to Newtown with discussion and security additions


NEW YORK (JTA) — Like every other mother in the United States, Patti Weiss Levy’s heart broke when she heard about last Friday’s school shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The longtime Connecticut resident lives an hour away from Newtown, so she assumed she wouldn’t know anyone involved. But as details of the massacre began to emerge, Weiss Levy said she realized just how small Connecticut is.

“We later found out my daughter babysat for one of the children killed,” Weiss Levy told JTA. “And the drummer in my daughter’s band could not attend a concert that night because his sister was one of the teachers killed, too. They were the nicest people, and this whole thing is horrid, just unspeakable.”

As the funerals began Monday for the 20 children and six adults gunned down last Friday by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, Jewish schools around the country grappled with how to discuss the tragedy appropriately with students and whether there were ways to improve security at their own schools.

Administration at the Bicultural Day School in Stamford, Conn., some 30 miles from Newtown, spent all of Monday combing the grounds buildings with security experts, one faculty member told JTA. The entire staff arrived at the school early in the morning for a meeting about how to discuss the tragedy with their students.

The Bicultural community felt particularly close to the Newtown shooting since the rabbi who led the funeral service for one of the victims, 6-year-old Noah Pozner, is married to a BCDS teacher. In the days after the shooting, the staff’s main concern was to make sure their building had the best security system possible.

Around the country, parents at Jewish schools conveyed their concerns about security. At the Hillel Day School in Boca Raton, Fla., school officials received an influx of emails from parents requesting they update their security system and emergency procedures. Head of School Rabbi Samuel Levine said the school was considering its options.

“Our school building is on the Jewish federation campus, so you would have to pass through a security,” Levine said. “But that doesn’t mean that if someone wanted to get on campus, they couldn’t. We’re sitting down with campus security this afternoon to review our security procedures and drills and see if there are any changes we can make.”

David Finell, head of school at the Rockwern Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio, said the shooting generated a new sense of urgency to review security precautions. 

“When you have this type of tragedy, it makes people revisit their procedures,” Finell said. “We run plenty of emergency drills, but after this, we are going to start having more and we’re going to implement some new security changes, though I can’t share what they are right now.”

When facing their students, Jewish administrators took different approaches to bringing up the Newtown shooting. Educators said they wanted to talk to their students in a way that’s effective and appropriate, while also taking care not to unnecessarily alarm younger students.

Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox school in New York, ran an extensive program for the middle and high school students and made faculty members available to speak with anyone who requested it. But Ramaz did not provide the program for younger children.

“A lot of our students seem to have been taken with the tragic events, so we encouraged feelings of sympathy for the victims and their families, and made sure the students felt our school was safe,” said Rabbi Paul Shaviv, adding that Ramaz teachers were prepared to talk to the younger children if they asked questions.

Boca’s Hillel School addressed the tragedy in a morning assembly for the middle school and dispatched school psychologists to talk to the lower grades.

“We need to be sensitive to the younger children,” Levine said. “I’m sure there was plenty of discussion about this over the shabbos table, and there were probably kids present.”

At the Levine Academy in Dallas, Head of School Mark Stolovitsky said he sought to find an age-appropriate manner in which to discuss the shooting with students. The events in Connecticut were explained in terms of bible or Disney stories. Like the stories of Purim or Passover, the children understand the concept of a “bad guy,” he said.

“We want kids to feel safe in school, but we also need to tell kids that there are bad men who do bad things,” he said.

Levine Academy is also deciding on a new school entrance strategy. As of now, only one of the school’s two entrances is guarded by armed security. But after the shooting, Stolovitsky and his staff will explore ways for all all students to enter through the same door.

“I also think we need to change our mindset and be more vigilant,” Stolovitsky added. “Make sure you stop people wandering around your school you don’t recognize, even if they are smiling. And we need to keep practicing emergency drills, where children know how to hide out of plain sight. This is why we have drill. It’s unlikely it will happen but we need to be prepared.”

While hiring armed guards and improving security systems are obvious steps to consider, school administrators say they want to be careful not to to turn their facilities into fortified prisons. Levine noted that Sandy Hook Elementary School had an impressive security system in place. Lanza, the shooter, forced his way inside.

“The Connecticut school was locked. They did all the right things, and this somehow happened,” Levine said.

“We have security cameras, we feel safe,” Stolovitsky added. “And we could choose to have metal detectors, and provide a whole new stage of security. But we live in an open, free society and this is a school. The security needs to be appropriate.”

Finell believes the most important role for educators or parents briefing kids about the shooting is to remain calm. At his school, teachers led discussions about the shooting, but waited for children in younger grades to initiate. The school is also planning an optional memorial service. But Finell stressed the importance of maintaining collected emotions.

“These kids are looking to us for their emotional cues,” he said. “We can’t show any fear or let them know how upset we are by all of this. We need to be reassuring at times like these and talk to them about all the safety precautions we are doing, show them that our number one goal is to take care of them.”

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