School officials throughout southern Maine offered support to anxious students Monday and reassured parents about the safety of their children during school hours.
On the first school morning since the deadly shootings in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., stunned the nation, superintendents reached out to parents in emails and automated phone calls promising extra security and access to counselors.
At least one school directly addressed the tragedy in the morning announcements, offering students a chance to talk about their feelings.
For the most part, however, schools maintained normal routines as much as possible and kept guidance counselors on standby for students who needed support.
At Biddeford Intermediary School, adults sought counsel more than children, said Denise D’Entremont, counselor at the school for grades 4 and 5.
“(Staff members) put themselves in those other teachers’ places. For parents, it’s ‘What if it was my child?’” D’Entremont said.
From children at the school, meanwhile, the intractable question for the staff was, simply, “Why?”
D’Entremont, who has been a school counselor for 21 years, said there are no easy answers and it’s important not to apply labels to the accused shooter, who media reports said had a high-functioning form of autism.
She said, “I had one boy say to me, ‘I have Asperger’s. I wouldn’t do that.’“
Debra Kenney, principal of Biddeford Intermediate School, asked students to pause for a moment of silence during the morning announcements and said it was OK to feel sad.
“We want you to know that the adults in our school care very much about your safety,” she said.
Portland Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said in a prepared statement that counseling would be available to students but that it was important for school to go on as usual.
“Providing a calm, dependable environment at school is the best way that we can help our students through this tragedy,” Caulk said.
Teachers in some districts were directed to let their students define the conversation about the shootings, rather than address the incident directly.
“(Staff members) are going to listen to the students to see what their interests are, what their questions are, to make sure there is someone to listen,” said Bob Hasson, superintendent for North Yarmouth and Cumberland schools.
“The thing we’re doing in our district is moving forward with teaching and learning,” said Westbrook Superintendent Marc Gousse, who said teachers will gauge their students’ reactions.
“When you have events like this, there’s no textbook saying you should do this or that.”
In Gorham, which dismissed students early Monday because of the snowstorm, school officials said only a small number of students raised questions or concerns about the shootings, said Superintendent Ted Sharp.
“I think parents did a really good job,” he said. “That’s my guess.”
While tending to students, school officials took steps Monday to reassure parents and staff members.
Scarborough school officials used an automated telephone message to let parents know that administrators were reassessing security protocols.
In Cape Elizabeth, Superintendent Meredith Nadeau said in a memo that the district is focusing on security. “Our local police officers will be making themselves very visible,” Nadeau wrote.
Sister Rosemary Donohue, superintendent of Maine Catholic Schools, said in a prepared statement that the schools are committed to keeping children out of harm’s way.
“The recent tragedy provides us with another opportunity to review and renew our commitment to safety,” Donohue said.
In his statement, Portland Superintendent Caulk told parents that the city’s police department is stepping up patrols around the schools.
Jessica Koundry, who has two children at Reiche Community School in Portland’s West End, said she was shaken by the shootings and tried to reassure her 8-year-old and 5-year-old.
“They’ve seen me have a breakdown over it,” said Koundry as she pushed her 1-year-old in a stroller outside the school Monday afternoon.
Her two older children understand that the gunman was sick, she said. “They’re going to be all right.”
Heidi Valeriani said her 5-year-old kindergartner was unaware of the shootings.
Valeriani, who works as a substitute teacher, said, “When it comes up, I’m going to explain to her there is evil and things do happen, but that she is safe.”
– Staff Writers Ann Kim, Leslie Bridgers and Tom Bell contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: