The morning of Dec. 14, 2012 began at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. much the way it did that day at schools in Chadds Ford, Kennett Square, West Grove and Oxford. School bells rang. Chalkboards and smart boards were empty, waiting to be filled. Attendance was taken. The jibber and jabber of conversation between students was hushed by teachers anxious to begin the day's lessons. The rest is known and burned forever into our conscience; our Dec. 15 was not like theirs that day at Sandy Hook, and the photographs of what we saw in the aftermath of that horrible morning, however, remain as vivid to mothers and fathers in southern Chester County as snapshots of their own children. Moreover, there was not one among them who, when they arrived home that evening, did not ask themselves, “What if that were my child?”
During the past year, each of the school districts the Chester County Press covers – officials from the Oxford School District; the Kennett Consolidated School District; the Avon Grove School District; and the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District – have met both privately and publicly with parents to discuss how they have planned to make the schools in their districts safer. They have met with local law enforcement agencies to explore – and in some cases, enact – ordinances and initiatives meant to put safeguards on visitation practices, better securing entrances and exits, and emergency procedures. They have re-written safety guidelines and upturned existing manuals in order to better leave no stone unturned, and although they are not at liberty to publicly disclose this information to us for security reasons, these administrators have elevated the subject of safety in our schools from what existed for years in the form of a back-room booklet to a town hall significance.
Still, however, a parent's concern about the safety of his or her child are as real as the mornings they see them off to school. When it comes to a child's welfare, nothing, no matter the weight of the odds, is guaranteed. Meanwhile, in the face of this persistent fear, they read newspapers and magazines that continue to tell of a nation run amok with public shootings. They see images flash upon their television screens. They read of a national organization that cares more for the rights of our nation's gun owners than it does for the safety of our nation's children. They see the names and faces of cold-blooded killers, many of whom have slipped beneath the radar of our country's mental health system. Each time they visit their child at school, they attend not just as a parent but as their own private investigator, wondering if school entrances, classrooms, lunchrooms and hallways that their child passes through could possibly be vulnerable to disruption.
As the one-year anniversary of Sandy Hook approaches, WHYY will convene a community dialogue on school safety this Saturday, Dec. 7, from 9 a.m. to noon at Arsht Hall, on the University of Delaware's Wilmington Campus on Pennsylvania Avenue. This will be your opportunity to hear experts on school safety offer different visions for how schools can become safer, and your chance to not only ask questions but to lend your voice to the conversation. The Chester County Press will provide complete coverage of the event.
The images of that horrible day remain burned into memory, and although we as a nation are powerless to wipe them away from our collective conscience, it is, ironically, that same collective conscience in us as a nation, as a town, and as a school district, that has the power to prevent such images from ever happening again.