When the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., occurred on Friday, Dec. 14, the District of Columbia Public Schools system was closed for a professional development day for teachers. So, children didn't have to attend school that day. It may have been a blessing for District parents.
That's how Monica Evans felt when she first heard about the tragedy inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults. Two others were wounded.
"My heart felt so heavy," said Evans, a 40-something -year-old mother from Ward 7. "However, I have to admit the next emotion I felt was completely selfish. I was so glad that DCPS was closed. My child was safe at home with my father."
Evans, who has a five-year-old son at a school on Capitol Hill, said when she first heard about the situation from a colleague, her "immediate response was to pray."
"I just started looking at the pictures and the families. Some were relieved faces. Their children were safe," Evans said. "Some were pained faces. I knew what that meant. I knew their lives would be changed forever. I could not put myself in their shoes."
Evans voiced what many parents in the D.C. area have been feeling ever since the news broke recently that 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother, 52-year-old Nancy Lanza, in Newtown before heading to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 first graders – mainly 6 and 7 years old – and their teachers. It rocked the core of the tight-knit community of about 27,000 residents, just outside Danbury, Conn. Lanza left a total death count of 28 people after a 10-minute murderous rampage, which ended in his suicide.
As the country continued to ask the question, "why," and tried to put the pieces together, one Southeast mother said it best, "you can replace the name, Sandy Hook, with any elementary school here in D.C., and you can have us dealing with the same tragedy. It could have happened anywhere."
During the weekend following the shooting, many parents who gathered for holiday parties and dinners talked about the magnitude of the carnage, especially so near to the holidays. In whispered tones – eyes darting at their children nearby – many discussed how they'll approach the children, and more important, what they will tell them.
Kimberly Kennedy said she talked about the shooting with her son, Christopher Salmon, 8, before he headed back to school.
"His reaction was what I expected," said Kennedy, 44, who's both a parent and a teacher's aide at Maury Elementary School in Northeast. "He didn't seem frightened but I just wanted to talk to him before he heard it at school." Kennedy said she was personally horrified by the massacre's "randomness."
On Monday, Dec. 17, the first day back to school after the tragedy, each school in the District's public school system chose to deal with its students differently.
At Maury, the principal joined several teachers in greeting the students and their parents by their names as they entered the building. Many parents said they were pleasantly surprised and touched. The rest of the staff was on the playground interacting with the children.
At Watkins Elementary in Southeast, parents said they noticed a police officer at the corner of the school on 12th Street. At Eastern Senior High School on East Capitol Street in Northeast, the students observed a moment of silence. One Northwest dad said he didn't experience anything different at the school.
On the first day back, Beth Caine hesitated to take her four-year-old son to his pre-kindergarten class in Northwest.
"I wanted to keep him home with me this week," said Caine, 30, "especially since it's close to the holidays. If someone told me this would be my reaction after I had kids, I would've just laughed. I'm horrified for those parents."
To help alleviate reactions such as these, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson sent a letter with the children to take home.
"Parents should never have to worry about the security of their students when they're in our care," Henderson wrote. "But what happened ... is another example that these horrible events can and do happen and we have to be vigilant in our efforts to prepare for every scenario and situation."
In many instances, principals in the public school system of 46,000 students, employed robo calls to children's homes, or emailed personal messages to parents, emphasizing their belief in the schools' safety processes; and to offer emotionally affected students opportunities to speak to counselors.
"The main question that I predict will come up is 'Am I safe in my school?' for those children who know about what happened," wrote one principal. "I'll be talking with staff on ways we can help students feel safe without directly mentioning specifics." Most schools chose not to address the tragedy in class; choosing instead to bring it up only if a student initiated the conversation.
In Prince George's County Public Schools, Communications Officer Briant Coleman said the 125,000-student body took several actions to deal with the tragedy, including a review of safety protocols, and increased security around the schools as a precautionary measure. It also observed a moment of silence on Monday, Dec. 17 to remember the youngest of victims.
Coleman said the school system immediately sent a letter to Newtown to express its sympathy.
"It's so important to reach out because during the D.C. sniper attacks, so many school districts reached out to us and it was so helpful," said Coleman who's been in his position for the last two years. "That's why we thought it necessary to communicate as much as possible." The Beltway Sniper attacks took place in October 2002 in several locations in the D.C., area, which left 10 people dead and three others critically injured.
Liselle Yorke, a 41-year-old mother whose daughter attends a school in Morningside, Md., in the Prince George's County Public Schools system, said she spoke to her 9 year old on the same day as the attack.
"She doesn't want to hear or see anything about it," said Yorke, who lives in Capitol Heights, Md. "She hasn't asked too many questions since then." However, her daughter asked her one question that stumped her.
"She asked, 'Will the teachers who died be teaching those children up in heaven?'" Yorke said. "I told her, 'I don't know.'"
Both District and Prince George's County public school systems have added resources on their websites to help parents respond to children's questions, many asked in innocence.
Some parents, like Evans, still have the option of not saying anything.
"My son is only 5. He doesn't know about what happened," said Evans, who, on Friday, Dec. 14 went home and hugged him and her father because her husband had not arrived home yet.
"He's too young to know. I won't tell him. I won't take his innocence yet."