As students entered Westerville City Schools Monday, they were met by Westerville police officers, a sign of the traumatic shooting that took the lives of 20 first-grader students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Friday, Dec. 14.
Each middle and high school in the district has a school resource officer assigned their daily, but officers were added to elementary schools until winter break commenced today.
"We've stationed officers at the elementary schools just so the parents are at ease, and the kids, too. They've been bombarded with reports by the media, so obviously they're concerned," said Westerville Police Chief Joe Morbitzer. "What we wanted to show them is that, where they're coming is a safe place."
A message to parents from Superintendent Dan Good was posted on the district website, emailed to parents and sent home as a letter to parents with students Monday.
Morbitzer and district spokesman Greg Viebranz said the district and police began talking Dec. 14 to determine how to best work to address community concerns.
"We also were in contact with local law enforcement as early as Friday evening to discuss how we could work together to manage (Monday's) return to school," Viebranz said. "(Officers) also were available to speak with any staff members, students and families about school safety, or safety in general."
The district sent communications to their staff members over the weekend to help them best address students' questions and concerns after a weekend filled with media coverage of the shooting.
"We're well aware that children will look to their teachers and other adults in the schools for reassurance. We sent a communication Sunday evening to all staff with resources and tips for having those difficult conversations with students if and when they were to arise," Viebranz said. "Counselors and other professional staff are available to respond and provide additional support to meet any building needs and concerns."
The district and police also reassured the community that the district has a plan for dealing with security breaches, such as shootings, Viebranz said. While the plan is kept secret, each school in the district practices that plan once every nine weeks.
Morbitzer said Westerville police long have had a schools crisis plan on the books, and it is reviewed and updated regularly.
The police division will work with the school district to review the Connecticut shooting to see what lessons can be learned to improve Westerville's plan, Morbitzer said.
"We developed a disaster plan 13 years ago," after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Morbitzer said. "And we meet all year and develop that plan and it's an ongoing process," he said. "Every incident that ever happens is a learning experience for everyone. You can pick up something out of everything. It needs to be education."
In addition to working with police to evaluate a crisis plan, Viebranz said the district has a safety and security committee that already was meeting to review district security and door-locking guidelines.
Crucial to the security of Westerville schools is the strong relationship between the district, police, the fire division and the city, Morbitzer said, as well as the strong police presence in schools.
"If they already have open lines of communication with police, it's not a shock when they see officers at their schools," Morbitzer said.
"We make ourselves available to the kids all the way from pre-K through Otterbein, if they go to Otterbein. ... The kids are familiar with the officers, so to see an officer at the school, they know it's for help and assistance."