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In Hancock County, parents, school officials contemplate a tragedy

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Fearing the worst: Frantic about the fate of her sister, a teacher who was inside Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, a woman waits to learn more information. Dozens of parents and loved ones of those who work at the school gathered outside the building after the shootings. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Fearing the worst: Frantic about the fate of her sister, a teacher who was inside Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, a woman waits to learn more information. Dozens of parents and loved ones of those who work at the school gathered outside the building after the shootings. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

HANCOCK COUNTY — Julie Adkins couldn’t help but think about the grieving parents 800 miles away Friday as she picked up her children from Eastern Hancock Elementary School.

The mother of a 6-year-old kindergartener – the same age of some of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. – said the tragedy was mind-boggling.

“For my children here at Eastern, I feel safe and blessed. It’s a good, safe environment,” said the Willow Branch resident. “It’s just heart-wrenching, because I’m sure (Newtown parents) didn’t think it would happen, either.”

Friday afternoon, Hancock County parents and school officials were grieving over the school shooting that left 27 people dead, including 18 children. Among the victims was the gunman’s mother, in whose kindergarten classroom the shooting began. The shooter, Adam Lanza, apparently killed himself after his rampage.

As they thought Friday about the unthinkable, school officials here said they take every precaution possible to keep students safe.

It just so happened that Greenfield Intermediate School had already scheduled a “code red” safety drill for Friday afternoon, and staff members were carrying it out as news was still coming in about the shootings in Connecticut, Principal Jim Bever said.

A code red drill, which removes all students and personnel from the hallways and secures them in locked classrooms, can be applied to a number of scenarios, including an intruder, Bever said.

Staff did not address Friday’s massacre with the students.

“It is most appropriate for parents to discuss it with their kids,” said Bever, who instead opted to send a letter to parents, explaining that the drill’s timing was only a coincidence.

In the letter, Bever encouraged parents to talk to their kids about what happened in Connecticut.

“Allow your children to talk about their worries surrounding the tragedy,” he wrote. “Reassure them that you, the school, and the adults who care for them and surround them are taking all practical measures to ensure their safety and security.”

At Eastern Hancock, like many county schools, only the main doors are unlocked, and they lead to offices where visitors must sign in. All grade levels also practice safety drills.

“I do (think it’s a safe school),” said Angel Graham when she picked up her 9-year-old son Friday. “But when something like this happens, it makes you worry. It makes you want to just pick your kid up and bring them home.”

Jennifer Edwards, a mother of three EH students, said her emotions went from anger to sadness as news traveled Friday.

“I can’t imagine going through this,” she said. “I can’t imagine losing somebody at the holiday season, let alone a child.”

Erin Maynard said it’s going to be difficult to talk to her children, ages 13 and 7, about the shooting. She will answer their questions, but she also wants to protect them.

“Like all parents, you don’t want them to know how awful the world is,” Maynard said.

Greenfield-Central Superintendent Linda Gellert sent an email to the district’s principals Friday afternoon, asking them to follow in Bever’s footsteps and send a note to parents who might be concerned about how to broach the topic with their children.

She also asked schools to practice a “code red” drill if they had not recently done so.

Steve Satterly, school safety director for the Southern Hancock Community School Corporation, said drills are practiced to benefit not only staff but students.

If everyone is comfortable with the procedure, it will go more smoothly when tension runs high, he said.

“Obviously in a drill, it’s a controlled environment,” he said. “But just the idea that there might be a bad person in the building raises the stress level a little bit. But then, doing the drill … develops more confidence of when something like this actually happens, that what we’re doing will be effective.”

Exterior doors are also locked at Mt. Vernon schools, except for ones that lead visitors to the main office. Visitors must sign in to the Lobbyguard system, which asks guests to provide identification. There is also video surveillance and electronic monitoring equipment throughout the district’s buildings, and local police help with traffic at the beginning and end of the day.

“I think our safety is pretty tight,” said Dan Denbo, McCordsville Elementary School principal, adding that safety drills also are regularly held.

“Obviously (the shooting) causes us to pause and say, ‘Oh my goodness,’ and then make sure that it never happens here,” Denbo said.

Law enforcement officials know they must train for that possibility.

Greenfield police officers have held active-shooter trainings in schools throughout the county, Police Chief John Jester said.

“Naturally, since Columbine, it’s become a hot-topic item,” Jester said. “I don’t remember doing much training before Columbine.”

Because the layout of each school is different, it’s important to expose officers to as many buildings and scenarios within those buildings as possible, Jester said.

Additionally, a school shooting would draw officers from throughout the county, if not the state, so police must be prepared to work outside their immediate jurisdiction and be familiar with the area if they are needed to assist.

Training not only prepares officers to perform the necessary tasks in the event of a school shooting, but gives them something routine to fall back on when emotion might otherwise take over and cloud their judgment, Jester said.

A shooter inside a school with hundreds of potential targets presents an especially dangerous scenario.

“And if you think about the high school, what have they got? Fourteen hundred students?” Jester said. “That’s 1,400 lives you’re worried about, not counting the staff and the teachers and everybody else. You’ve got to find the shooter, and you got to find ’em quick.”

Staff writer Joe Hornaday contributed to this report.

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