The former principal of Stockton Springs Elementary School, where four years ago a fifth-grade class was held hostage at gunpoint while the rest of the school was evacuated, advised parents to protect their children this weekend from the images being broadcast of the Newtown, Conn., mass shootings.
“I tend to err on the side of protecting them, especially from a screen, because they don’t know how to filter out what is real in their lives and what happened several states away,” said Linda Bowe of Belfast.
As details about the Connecticut tragedy continued to unfold over the weekend, Bowe said memories rushed back of Halloween Day 2008 when Randall Hofland of Searsport held her fifth-graders hostage for half an hour while the adjoining fourth-grade class, separated only by a cloth accordion room divider, huddled in a corner in silence hoping not to make their presence known to the gunman.
No one was hurt in the incident and the normal routine at the school was quickly re-established, she said, but the emotional effects lingered long after.
“The aftermath is not something talked about very much,” said Bowe.
Bowe, who’s now principal of Searsport Elementary School, said the Newtown shootings are sure to bring back bad memories for everyone involved in the Stockton Springs incident. She plans to talk to the fourth- and fifth-graders, now students at Searsport High School, on Monday.
“They will be feeling this again,” said Bowe.
Back in 2008, the school had its exterior doors locked in the week leading up to the hostage event because Hofland was at large following an armed confrontation with local police. The school of about 85 students and a staff of about 10 is about 10 miles north of Belfast.
After a week camping out in nearby woods, Hofland managed to make his way into the school when the doors were opened to let students in for the day. As he approached her classroom, fifth-grade teacher Caroline Russell tried to the lock the door with her key. But Hofland grabbed the doorknob, put a gun to her head and walked into the room with 11 children inside.
Meanwhile, school bus driver Glen Larrabee alerted the rest of the school room by room through exterior doors and staff evacuated the children, who were rushed away to nearby Searsport Elementary School. Only the fourth-grade class, which remained in lockdown mode, and the fifth-grade class remained in the building as police tried to negotiate with Hofland.
Two of the fifth-graders managed to calm Hofland down, one by offering him her lunch and another by asking questions about the gun.
“They were very brave, very courageous,” said Bowe.
Hofland allowed two of the most visibly upset children to leave and after talking with police through the door, handed the clip to his gun to a student. The entire incident lasted about 30 minutes.
The fourth-graders remained in lockdown for about an hour until a maintenance worker discovered them.
“The emotional trauma lasts for a very, very long time,” said Bowe.
She said she wrestled with how to help the school recover.
“You are trying to get back to normal and at the same time want to acknowledge something terrible has happened,” said Bowe.
She said in the aftermath children experienced stomachaches and nightmares. Although intensive counseling was offered to children at her school, few parents took advantage of the offer. She said some parents thought the counseling would cause their children to dwell on the incident.
“It is very challenging,” said Bowe.
Hofland is serving a 35-year prison sentence for the armed kidnapping of the fifth-graders.
Others who deal with traumatized children said in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, it is important for parents to stick to routines, provide children a sense of security, take a break from the news and do something relaxing or fun.
“A good night’s sleep, a good breakfast with fruit, exercise, those really boring things,” said Elizabeth Dostie, clinical and program director at The Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers in Waterville.
Susan Giambalvo, programs director at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, said it is important for parents to talk to their children about the Connecticut shootings because their children have almost certainly heard about the tragedy.
“I don’t think you can leave it alone because it is so very present in the media, in our homes, in the newspapers,” said Giambalvo.
She said sometimes children are more frightened and upset if they feel they can’t talk with their parents about things they are hearing about. Parents should try to reassure their children and provide a sense of security for children who may not be as eager to enter a school on Monday morning.
“You might want to drop them off at school instead of taking the bus, (and) check in during the day,” said Giambalvo.
Adults can lessen their own anxieties by staying connected with people, she said.
“When we have these support systems in place they serve to remind us that most people in the world are good and do care about each other,” she said.
Doing something for someone else can really help relieve adult anxieties, said Giambalvo, adding that it is OK to be happy despite the sad event.
“Do the things you enjoy,” she said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: