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Needham schools seek routine, normalcy amid grief over Newtown massacre

Posted by Evan Allen  December 17, 2012 12:10 PM

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Vigil in Needham.jpg
Courtesy of Boston Archdiocese

Parents pulled up behind an idling police car to drop their children off on Monday morning at Broadmeadow Elementary School in Needham. Many were grim-faced and wary of a reporter, and Assistant Principal Robi Richards said that staff were trying to keeping a sense of normalcy – the police presence, she said, was the only thing that was out of the ordinary.

“We’re really hoping to make this a day that’s a beginning day for our children,” said Richards. “Right now, this is all about the children and the parents.”

It was an anxious return to routine. On Friday morning, a 20-year-old Connecticut man shot his mother in her home and then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where he shot and killed 20 first-graders and six teachers before turning the gun on himself, in the second-deadliest school shooting in American history.

For Jay Moreschi, who walked with his kindergartener into the school, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School weighed on his mind.

“You just walk into school, and you see all the kids walking around the hallways – I must have seen 70 of them. It just makes you think, what makes me any different than someone walking in there that doesn’t belong there?” he said. “I see all the glass windows – what’s to stop somebody coming in through the glass windows? It’s sad to think that way, but it’s almost like – it seems like Newtown was a similar community to Needham.”

Moreschi, 43, also has a 3-year-old. He has not talked to either of his daughters about the shooting in Connecticut, he said, and they have kept the television off at their home. If their kindergartener has questions, he said, they will try to answer them, but only if she brings it up.

“We just told her to give her kindergarten teacher an extra special hug today,” he said.

Drop-offs went smoothly on Monday morning at Newman Elementary School in Needham, said principal Jessica Peterson. On Friday, she said, the principals of all the schools met with Superintendent Dan Gutekanst to discuss existing safety procedures and how best to talk to students about the tragedy in Connecticut.

On Monday morning, she said, she met with Newman staff to discuss the same issues, and will meet again on Monday afternoon to check in and see how the day went.

“My message to them this morning was that while this is really close to our hearts, and tragic, that we find the joy in what we do,” Peterson said. “The rest of the week, that’s our goal, is to find the joy, and be models for our kids of resiliency. That we persevere.”

The school is not planning new safety procedures, she said. The school already locks its doors after 9 a.m., and requires visitors sign in at the main door and wear a visitor’s badge. They just did a lockdown drill two weeks ago, she said, and all of the schools in Needham have security measures that are coordinated with the police and fire departments.

The guidance department, she said, has developed a script for teachers to answer questions from children, but will not be explicitly talking about Newtown.

“The message is that kids are safe, and sometimes sad things happen, but that kids are safe,” she said. “The adults in this building will make sure that they’re safe.”

That, said Needham Youth Services Director Jon Mattleman, is the most important thing that adults can tell children.

“The reality is, they are safe," said Mattleman. "This is an extreme and horrible case that will probably forever change the landscape of how we deal with buildings and schoochildren, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t go to school, that doesn’t mean that we don’t go to movies, to use another example, and live our lives.”

Mattleman said he has received calls from parents who don’t know what to say to their children. The best strategy, he said, is to keep conversations relatively brief, to avoid going into details about the shootings, and to reassure children that they will be okay in their school. It can help to talk to children about who they might talk to in school if they get anxious during the day.

And, he said, children take their cues from their parents – so adults need to be aware that if they are talking about the shootings on the phone with a friend, or watching news nonstop, their child is absorbing all of that information, too.

It is also important to remember, said Mattleman, that we may never understand why the gunman did what he did – and accepting that is part of coming to terms with the tragedy.

Everyone, said Mattleman, is grieving for Newtown.

“I think that with this incident, we don’t really know those families or those children. But a lot of us have had children. And so we know what their life might have been like,” he said. “We know that some people might have dropped off their kids and said, ‘Honey, please come right out of school because were going to dance lessons,’ or ‘We have soccer practice.’ So we all can identify with that as parents, and if not as parents, as people who were in a little elementary school with a nice principal and nice teachers.”

A vigil is planned at Memorial Field in Needham at 6 p.m. on Monday night.

As for what comes next, no one is quite sure.

“I think people are shaken, I think they want some answers,” said Board of Selectmen Chair Jerry Wasserman. “I do think that there has to be a lot more exploration of gun control. That subject has to come back up in Washington.”

Needham’s Town Meeting has in the past taken stands on national issues – this past summer, they voted for a resolution condemning Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the door to SuperPACs. But Wasserman said it was too early to speculate about whether something like that could come up on the floor of the next Town Meeting.

The horror at the massacre in Newtown is unlikely to fade soon, especially in the town’s schools.

“I don’t think it’ll be something that goes away quickly,” said Peterson. “I think it makes us realize even more clearly how important our jobs are, to a whole new level. I think it’s just going to be something at the forefront of our mind.”

For information on how to talk to children, Jon Mattleman provided this article.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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