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Area Parents Wrestle With Newtown Tragedy

12/19/2012, 9:12 a.m.

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."