The reaction in the Upper Perkiomen Valley was similar to that of communities across the country as people mourn the loss of 20 students and six staff from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut at the hands of a lone gunman.
The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, went on a rampage inside the Newtown school Friday morning, armed with a rifle and two handguns, after killing his mother in the home they shared.
The student victims were only 6 and 7 years old.
Authorities are still investigating a possible motive for the shooting.
“As a mother of four kids I can not imagine how those mothers are coping with the reality that their precious little ones are not with them anymore,” said Marilu Lingenfelter of Hereford, whose children range in age from 6-14. “It is difficult to think of anyone wanting to harm young children who are so innocent. My feelings are hard to describe other than sadness.”
Christine Eden of Pennsburg, mom to two daughters in Upper Perkiomen School District, said she, too, finds the tragedy hard to process.
“I am still at a loss for words,” she said. “I still can’t watch the news. It’s not that I am trying to avoid the situation, it’s just too upsetting. Having a 6-year-old myself, it just hits home. School is supposed to be a safe place for the kids and parents aren’t supposed to worry when we send them off on the bus. I hope that our school will seriously reevaluate all of the safely precautions that are already in effect, and make sure our school stays safe.”
As the story of the massacre emerged, Upper Perkiomen Superintendent Dr. Beth Yonson circulated a letter to district parents and staff, noting her heartbreak and stating that the district would continue to enforce and reevaluate security to make sure staff was doing everything possible in reason to keep children safe.
On Monday, principals met with staff in each school and discussed how to talk to students in an “age- and developmentally-appropriate way about the event, assuring them they are safe,” Yonson said in a follow-up letter dated Dec. 16.
She noted doors are locked during the school day and that visitors must be buzzed into the buildings. She also said district personnel would do everything they could to insure normalcy in the classroom through the week.
“For me, and I know my staff, safety and security are paramount,” Yonson said Tuesday. “We are here to educate children but if we can’t keep them safe we aren’t doing our job. Their parents entrust them to us and we take that very seriously.”
Yonson said the district’s school safety plan in place is all-encompassing, which is routinely gone over and practiced with staff. A safety committee, co-chaired by school resource officer James McFadden, a former Quakertown chief of police, also meets quarterly to keep the plan up-to-date.
“It covers from the mundane like snowstorms to the most devastating, which took place in Connecticut last week,” Yonson said. “The bottom line is that our plan addresses any safety issue.”
Yonson said the district chose not to raise the issue of the shooting in its schools Monday, believing younger students were properly shielded from the violence by parents. Instead, they dealt with students individually.
Only two students district wide were referred to guidance or school psychologists, Yonson said.
Teachers and staff also felt the weight of the shooting, said Upper Perkiomen Education Association (UPEA) President and special education technology teacher Bob LaSalle.
“All of the teachers at Upper Perk were shocked and deeply saddened by the horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” he said. “The senseless loss of life leaves all of us with heavy hearts. As our students came to us on Monday, every teacher was extra vigilant to watch for students who were upset or feeling uneasy, and had been given directives on what to do if we found a student in distress. All of our schools have plans in place and drills we practice, ones that we hope we never have to use, in order to be prepared for an emergency situation should one arise. We will do our best to ensure that every student feels safe and secure in our schools.”
Overall, the response at Upper Perkiomen schools was quiet but sad, students said. School psychologists referred questions on the issue to administrators, who were not available to comment Wednesday on support services available to students.
Area police departments showed an increased presence Monday morning as Marlborough Police were stationed at Marlborough Elementary and Upper Perk Police patrolled outside Upper Perk Middle School Monday and inside Tuesday.
McFadden also spent time at Hereford Elementary and Yonson at Upper Perk High School.
Marlborough Police Officer-in-Charge Darren Morgan said his department is working with Upper Perk and PA State Police, Skippack barracks, in a unified effort to update area safety plans and provide increased training to officers.
“The community will see a greater presence at schools,” Morgan said of this week’s efforts. “That will give them some comfort.”
Upper Perk Police Chief Mike Devlin said his department has been coordinating with the school district since 2009 on a rapid response policy, and practices annually, which includes addressing an active shooter.
Yonson reiterated Upper Perkiomen will remain vigilant and noted those in Newport will not soon be forgotten.
“Again, our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost loved ones and we are also keeping all those in that school community in our prayers. Our hope is that the memories of those lost will someday bring their loved ones comfort.”