December 16, 2012

Maine hostage horror recalled as state grapples with response

The former principal of a Stockton Springs school urges parents to protect their kids.

By Beth Quimby
Staff Writer

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.

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Here are tips from the National Traumatic Stress Network for parents on how to talk to children about mass shooting.

Start the conversation. Talk about the shooting with your child. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child's mind.

Start by asking what your child already has heard about the events. Listen carefully for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns.

Gently correct inaccurate information. Take time to provide the correct information in simple, clear, age-appropriate language.

Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer those questions directly.

This may be a time to review plans your family has for keeping safe in the event of any crisis situation.

Let your child know the person cannot hurt anyone else.

Limit media exposure, both your child's and your own. Do not allow your very young children to see or hear any TV/radio shooting-related messages.Portland candlelight vigil set

The Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence is organizing a vigil at 5 p.m. Sunday at Monument Square in Portland.

Karen D'Andrea, executive director, said the vigil is in response to Friday's shooting of children and school staff in Newtown, Conn. Everyone is invited and asked to bring a candle if possible.

Portland City Councilor Edward Suslovic, a member of the anti-handgun organization's board, said he is encountering more anger from the public than after previous mass shootings.

"There is an anger there that had not been present for other recent mass shootings," said Suslovic.

- From staff reports

"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.

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