With war, schools comfort, prepare



SInce the war broke out, New Haven’s public schools have made efforts to ensure the safety and comfort of their students.

Schools are working to ensure that emergency preparedness plans are in place, and making guidelines available to teachers and parents for discussing the war with children. Though safety measures are not markedly different now than in peacetime, talk of war is still filtering into the classrooms.

New Haven Public Schools spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo said when the war started, the administration communicated with school principals and parents.

Two weeks ago, Superintendent Reginald Mayo sent a letter home to parents of public school children, in which he assured them that the city’s schools were “taking every possible precaution to insure that our schools are safe and secure.”

According to the letter, an emergency preparedness plan is in place for each school, and the schools are continuing to work closely with local, state, and federal agencies.

The letter also described a “lockdown” procedure in which students and staff are told to remain in the building so that they can be isolated from a danger. The lockdown plan was developed many years ago, Sullivan-DeCarlo said, and was not originally designed for a war-related crisis.

Mayo said in his letter that the schools practiced lockdown drills during the last week of March.

Leroy Williams, principal of Roberto Clemente Middle School, said although New Haven has had a lockdown plan for some time, his school recently revived the drill practices last month. Williams said a lockdown could be used in a diverse array of situations, ranging from a school shooting like that in Columbine, Colo., to a “chemical situation” in which air circulation would need to be controlled.

“It changes as the situation dictates,” Williams said.

Williams said emergency preparedness also means being constantly vigilant, and making sure everything is in order around the school.

Louann Bohman, chairwoman of the history and English departments at Wilbur Cross High School, said students have been discussing the war primarily in social studies classes. She said it is a sensitive issue because relatives of students and teachers alike have been deployed.

Enclosed with Mayo’s letter to parents was a set of guidelines for talking to their children about war, prepared by the Yale Child Study Center.

David Schonfeld, coordinator of the School Crisis Response Initiative of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, and associate professor of pediatrics and an affiliate of Yale’s Child Study Center, said guidelines from the National Center — which operates under the auspices of the Yale Child Study Center — were shared with New Haven’s teachers and parents.

The SCRI was created in 1991, when the first war in the Persian Gulf broke out and schools were searching for ways to talk to students about it. Although the war ended fairly quickly, the SCRI continued to develop because at the time, the level of community violence in the greater New Haven area was quite high.

Schonfeld said the New Haven public school system has been involved with SCRI since it began, and the initiative works to help schools prepare for crisis situations. The SCRI is also working with New York City’s public schools, which consulted the initiative after Sept. 11.

Schonfeld said that although special factors must be considered when talking about a war, teachers should not feel uncomfortable addressing it.

“I think to ignore what has happened communicates to the children you are not ready to talk about things that are relevant,” he said.

He said he thinks teachers should “create a pretty open environment where you encourage children to express their unique worries.” He also said educators should refrain from telling children how to respond to the war. Some schools might tell them to wear patriotic colors, for instance, and Schonfeld said this might not be what the children want to do.

Tom Murphy, spokesman for the Connecticut State Department of Education, said the Connecticut schools’ security plans and systems have been updated and redeveloped as larger world events occur. He said the Columbine shooting raised awareness of a new, more violent context for schools.

After Sept. 11, Murphy said his department found they did not have an adequate system of communicating with school systems. Instead of relying on phone trees or mail, Murphy said Connecticut now has a state-administered e-mail system with forwarding features, for emergencies and important situations.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Connecticut that [schools] have been safe places and they continue to be,” Murphy said.

But he said schools also have to keep in mind their primary mission, which is teaching, learning and development.

“All those things swirled together make education a much more complicated enterprise,” he said.

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