Nashville schools saw an increased law enforcement presence on campuses Wednesday following Tuesday’s mass shooting in Texas that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
Outside Stratton Elementary School, a flag was flying at half-mast against a blustery gray sky as the chatter of kids on the playground carried across the campus and families milled around.
It was the school’s last full day before summer break, with graduation and awards ceremonies marking the day.
Officer Faye Okert barely made it a few steps at a time in the hallways without kids running up to her for hugs, high fives and secret handshakes.
Okert works as a school resource officer at Madison Middle School, which sits right next to Stratton Elementary.
Metro Nashville Public Schools does not have SROs at its 70 elementary schools, but Okert often volunteers her time at Stratton. Both schools are part of her daily routine as she patrols the campus and builds relationships with students and staff. She has spent the last 15 years of her 31-year career as an SRO.
When news of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, reached her Tuesday, Okert said disbelief, anger and sadness washed over her.
“Then I came back and thought about these kids and what I do every day – what we do as SROs – to keep this school safe,” Okert said.
As she drove into work Wednesday, she was determined to make the day as normal as possible for the kids and to make parents and staff feel safe, especially during the school’s awards and graduation ceremonies planned for the day.
Nashville school leaders react, respond to Texas school tragedy
Within hours of the news of the tragedy in Uvalde, Metro Nashville school and city officials promised to increase security and review safety protocols across Nashville campuses this week.
Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake directed that all 70 elementary schools be visited Wednesday by a police officer “to help reassure staff and discuss security protocols.”
Drake also directed SROs like Okert to “relay the same messaging at their assigned middle and high schools,” according to a Tuesday release from MNPD.
Drake said the department has also taken steps to enhance safety at the high school graduation ceremonies taking place this week. An 18-year-old was killed and a 17-year-old was critically injured in a shooting after a high school graduation ceremony in neighboring Rutherford County just last week.
School officials also ensured the district’s student support service team would be on hand to offer teachers and staff the necessary tools to help themselves and students process the tragic event this week. That includes offering trauma counseling as needed, Director Adrienne Battle announced at a school board meeting Tuesday night.
Battle, school board members and other district officials were actually already gathered together for the meeting when the news out of Texas broke.
With her board chair Christiane Buggs near tears, Battle said she and school leaders were devastated by the “senseless, horrific shooting.” She also said society sometimes fails to protect its children.
“Children have the right to learn and thrive in a safe environment, free from violence or tragedy, and far too often society fails in protecting that right. Our hearts go out to all the families in Uvalde who have lost loved ones,” Battle added Tuesday night.
How does MNPS protect students?
All schools develop detailed security plans with the support of the district’s security department, according to spokesman Sean Braisted.
“All staff, as well as students, have a role to play in ensuring the safety of everyone in the building,” Braisted added.
The district’s school resource officer program is funded out of the MNPD budget and managed by the police department, but the program aims to have two officers per high school and one per middle school.
Current SRO staffing numbers weren’t available Wednesday.
The district’s own security officers rotate throughout the district and respond to incidents as needed, Braisted said.
Most schools also operate one single entry point when school is in session and front doors are equipped with buzzers and cameras.
The district also has about 65 school psychologist positions, who serve a variety of schools to offer mental health counseling services, including trauma counseling.
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Tips for talking to your students
Okert said most of her students didn’t seem to know about what had happened in Texas — something she is grateful for — but that several staff and parents expressed their concerns and sadness.
“I can’t imagine … as a parent, dropping your kids off today after hearing that on the news,” Okert said.
The National Association of School Psychologists offers guidance for parents and teachers for talking to children about violence. Here are some tips:
1. Reassure children that they are safe.
2. Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk about, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work.
3. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
- Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them.
- Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
- Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society.
4. Review safety procedures. Help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they go if they feel threatened or at risk.
5. Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort.
6. Limit television viewing of these events.
7. Maintain a normal routine.
Meghan Mangrum covers education for the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
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