SANTA CRUZ -- School leaders sought Monday to allay fears of local parents still shocked by Friday's horrific massacre in Newtown, Conn.
With a sorrowful nation looking on, the New England town of 27,000 began Monday to bury the victims of a shooting rampage that left 28 dead, 20 of whom were 6 or 7 years old. The shooting spree not only revived an enduring debate about gun control, but it also pried open the fears of parents who worry it could happen elsewhere.
"Unless we have armed guards at every entrance and exit, is there the possibility that someone like this person can get into your school? The answer is unfortunately, 'yes,' " said Dorma Baker, superintendent of Pajaro Valley Unified School District. "But I don't think any one of us wants to make our schools like prisons."
Local administrators stressed Monday that schools are safe places, but some said they were reviewing safety procedures in the wake of the shooting. All underscored that the likelihood of a similar tragedy here is very low, and while local police were a visible presence at schools Monday, administrators cautioned against overreacting.
News of the Friday's shooting spread just as parents on the West Coast were dropping off their children at school, leading some parents to embrace their children for a few extra moments before sending them off to class. One father raising questions about safety is Andy Spring, whose 6-year-old daughter attends Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary.
"Obviously the chances are slim something's going to happen," Spring said. "But if you're one of the people who are the one out of a million, you don't really care what the odds are."
Spring said he would like to see local schools bolster safety measures, including adding police presence during drop-off and pickup times, and perhaps installing bullet-proof doors and windows.
"It seems expensive, but they're not saying that in Newtown," said Spring, who was glad to hear from district administrators that the school has a safety plan.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Administrators stress there are limits on what can, or even should, be done in the name of school security. Some said the educational mission could be jeopardized if schools are turned into fortresses, potentially creating an environment of fear.
"I'm more interested in gun control than overreacting and turning schools into some kind of armory," Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Michael Watkins said. "I prefer to get guns off the street."
Schools have counselors available for students to talk about the tragedy, and many sent letters home or compiled lists of resources for parents if their children have questions.
School personnel go through regular emergency training, including for the type of lockdown that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and law enforcement agencies also train for school shootings. Districts have communication networks set up to get word out to parents in the event of a tragedy, with the County Office of Education acting as the main channel for communication.
Local law enforcement officials also fielded calls about school safety. Sheriff's deputies visited a number of schools Monday and Santa Cruz police stepped up patrolling around schools.
"By far most of the feedback has been positive," said Chief Deputy Don Bradley of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office. "It was a friendly environment, to let them know we're here and we care. Most of the deputies have children and care about safety in our schools personally and professionally."
Principal Sharlene Santos of Scotts Valley's Brook Knoll Elementary said she asked deputies to come Monday.
"We definitely have safety plans in place to address emergencies and we practice those with vigilance," she added, saying more parents than usual came with their children, including one who brought flowers as a gesture of appreciation. "The tenor of the children was really pretty good today. I didn't sense any fear."
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Boulder Creek Elementary Principal Lynn Chappell posted a letter to parents on the school website Monday, mentioning the presence of a deputy at the school entrance earlier in the day. She said the deputy's presence was reassuring to some and alarming to others.
Sandy Hook shootings coverage
Chappell said staff met before school to review how to handle discussions in the classroom. About half of the teachers reported a student had brought up the incident in class, she said.
Baker, the Pajaro Valley schools superintendent, said the district is aware of the emotional toll of Sandy Hook. School psychologists started working during the weekend to provide staff with tips on how to talk to children about the incident and about violence in general. Staff also is on the alert for any student who appears to need more support to deal with the tragedy.
Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Gary Bloom said his district sent letters home with elementary school children Friday, and has given teachers advice on how to discuss the shooting with children who ask about it.
"It was a very frightening and terrible event. We certainly tried to provide people support as they cope with that," Bloom said, adding that safety is the district's highest priority.
Bloom said the district regularly reviews safety plans for each of its schools, with some reassessments due in the near future.
Tamra Taylor, superintendent of the Live Oak School District, sent a letter to parents Monday. An event like the shooting "really gives you pause to look at what you're doing," she said.
She met with principals and program directors Monday to talk about the emergency preparedness plans the district already has in place. Each classroom has a folder or chart that outlines lockdown and evacuation policies, and principals also create individualized disaster preparedness plans.
While authorities stressed Monday that school shootings are rare, they occur with disturbing frequency in the U.S. Most are carried out by male minors with evident access to weapons, the youngest being a 6-year-old who killed a classmate at a Flint, Mich., elementary school in 2000.
Since 1980, there have been seven major school shootings in Canada, 16 in Europe and 11 in other parts of the world. So far in 2012, there have been 14 in the U.S., including a gunman who killed seven at Oikos University in Oakland in April.
In November 2010, jail inmate Maurice Ainsworth escaped from custody at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, took a deputy's gun and entered a nearby preschool. A teacher testified that he held her at gunpoint in a room that contained infant children, but he later left after demanding her car keys. No one at the school was harmed.
Staff writers Donna Jones, Cathy Kelly and Jessica Pasko contributed to this report. Follow Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin on Twitter at Twitter.com/scnewsdude