Kellie Iannacone is a 2017 Staples High School graduate, now a 1st-year student at the Villanova University School of Business. She writes:
I was walking into a review session with my English professor when I got the text. It was from my younger brother, a sophomore at Staples.
His message read: “I’m freaking out”
Since leaving Westport to attend Villanova as freshman this fall, text conversations between my brother and I normally consist of a meme back and forth, or him looking for advice on what classes to take as a rising junior.
So when I received his message on Tuesday, I knew something was wrong.
Before I even had time to respond, a screen shot of superintendent Palmer’s message to parents surfaced in my hometown group chat. I put 2 and 2 together, and was horrified.
I alerted my teacher. She was extremely understanding, letting me use my phone throughout the session and even offering to reschedule if I could not focus.
During the next few hours I felt a fear I had never experienced before. It’s like watching your worst nightmare play out in real life, and feeling that your heart may beat out of your chest. I could not rest easy until I heard from my brother he had made it through the front door of our house.
Kellie and Zachary Iannacone.
As I write this on my train ride to Westport for spring break, I know I could have been coming home to a completely different outcome. Rather than returning to a full household, I know I could have returned to my household minus one, my neighborhood minus one, my town minus one (or even worse, multiple people).
From hundreds of miles away, I told my brother I didn’t want him to go to school Wednesday morning. From hundreds of miles away I felt the pain, heartache and fear that my hometown was enduring. From hundreds of miles away I felt the need to run home, and shelter my brother and community from any future possible
As a first year college student, my biggest worries should be trying to combat the freshman 15 and walking into the showers only to find they are all full. My biggest worry should not be that when I go back to school a a little over a week from now that my brother, my friends, and my former educators will possibly be taken from me before I return to Westport again. My biggest fear should not be that when I go back to Villanova I could face the same threats.
I want kindergartners to be able to play on the playground without fear a shooter will enter school grounds. I want middle schoolers to enjoy the new array of options in the cafeterias without fear that an intruder will come after them. I want high schoolers to get excited about going to college and finding themselves, not fearing that they may not even make it there.
Many people refer to us as living in the “Westport bubble.” That means we live in some form of perfected alternative reality, compared to the rest of the world. With the incidents last Tuesday, I believe that we are no different than the rest of the world.
Mass school shootings and gun violence are issues beyond our personal control. We are told “if you see something, say something,” but I think we can all agree we’ve seen enough.
I cannot stress more the need to pop this bubble, and let our voices be heard.
“You’re just a kid, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Except I do. I’m taught well and I follow the news. People, children, are dying because we have access to assault rifles.
When you want to make a point about how something is wrong, you say “think of the children.” But now the children are speaking out and all you can say is “you’re just kids.”
We are just kids, but even kids have opinions. Our opinion is that we shouldn’t fear being shot while we’re at school. You want us in school so we can gain knowledge and make our nation better.
You have the power to make our nation better right now by making it safer. In a population of 326 million, 73 million people are under 18. That’s around 8.5 times the population of New York City.
The founders of our nation believed in fighting for what you believe in. You’ll say those were different times. If those were different times, then why do you insist on committing to the 2nd Amendment? It was written in 1787.
Sophisticated assault weapons, when the 2nd Amendment was passed.
This is 2018. We’re a more advanced society now, and we need more advanced laws to fit. After 9/11, we said never again. We changed laws to make society safer. How many kids have to die at school before we change the laws to prevent those deaths? We are the future, and you’re letting us die.
I wrote that 2 days ago. Yesterday my school was evacuated because of a potential shooter threat. It’s a new feeling.
Whenever there is a shooting far away, I’m sad for everyone there. Whenever it’s nearby, I’m scared that it was so close.
This feeling was different. I was so utterly terrified of what could’ve happened. I shouldn’t have to text my family to let them know I’m safe, because I should be safe at school.
I shouldn’t be getting concerned messages from my family all over the world. I shouldn’t be scared at school.
This has to stop. We need to be safe. You’re letting us die because you want to keep your precious guns. Guns should not have more rights than the children of our nation. We need to stand up and fight back before we’re all gone.
Artwork by Elizabeth DeVoll, exhibited recently at the Westport Arts Center.
My kids are in middle school and elementary school. Yesterday, I kept thinking of my son who is right next door to Staples, at Bedford.
Like many parents I’m so worried about our kids, going back to Newtown. Thankfully, yesterday’s outcome was as positive as it could be. I do feel for the kid who made the threat. It’s sad to see someone so troubled that they felt that this was a possible option.
I just brought my son to Bedford. I became teary, seeing a police officer out front and camera crews at the end of the Staples driveway.
They were grateful tears. Tears of relief seeing the officer. I was thinking about superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer, and the police caring about our kids so much. In that moment I felt so proud.
Trying to hide my own emotions, I asked my son if he wanted me to walk him in. With a shrug he said, “I’m fine Mom.”
He gave our dog a pat on the head through the back seat window, and off he went. Just like it was any other day.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Colleen Palmer sent this message tonight, to families of Westport students:
This morning, a student at Staples High School reported to administration that they had overheard some threatening statements by another student targeted at a staff member within the school. We commend this student for the courage to come forward to share this critical information about our safety. Within minutes of this knowledge, a Staples administrator had the student of concern supervised in the main office, called the police, and called my office.
From that point on, our Central Office administrative team, the Staples High School administrative team, the Westport Police Department, and our first selectman worked hand-in-hand to address the presenting issues throughout the day. As a precautionary measure, police officers were assigned to our high school. It was only several hours later that information emerged that prompted us to shift to our strategy to shelter in place and to dismiss early.
The events of today unfolded dynamically and rapidly. Since this is an ongoing police investigation, there is a need to collaborate with the Westport Police Department in sharing further information so as not to impede their work.
Dr. Colleen Palmer
I would expect that the events at Staples today impacted you in some way, stirring up many emotions. I can only imagine the level of worry that some of you experienced. The idea that we have to even think about the wave of violence that has hit our schools in these times is unfathomable.
Before Staples reopens for a regular day of school tomorrow, I will meet with its staff to debrief and to commend their exceptional service to our students today. As caring professionals, they remained calm, implemented well-practiced safety protocols, and made every effort to assure our students were comforted and made to feel safe during the events of the day.
To support a conversation with your student regarding these matters, I again attach the helpful guide from the National Association of School Psychologists which provides useful strategies with this communication (see below).
Tomorrow, our professionals will work with our students in developmentally appropriate ways based upon their questions and needs. With our youngest learners, we expect to address individual needs as they emerge. At Staples, support staff will offer small group discussion opportunities, as well as individual support, if needed.
As a community committed to safeguarding its children, we are very fortunate that we were able to work together to keep our students safe and sound today.
TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT VIOLENCE:
TIPS FOR PARENTS AND TEACHERS
High profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved-ones are at risk. They will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react.
Parents and school personnel can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears.
1. Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
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, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.
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. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
• 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.
Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.
4. Review safety procedures. This should include procedures and safeguards at school and at home. 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. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek
the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned.
6. Limit television viewing of these events. Limit television viewing and be aware if the television is on in common areas. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children.
Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure to vengeful, hateful, and angry comments that might be misunderstood.
7. Maintain a normal routine. Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical health. Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise. Encourage them to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.
SUGGESTED POINTS TO EMPHASIZE WHEN TALKING WITH CHILDREN
• Schools are safe places. School staff works with parents and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep you safe.
• The school building is safe because … (cite specific school procedures).
• We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.
• There is a difference between reporting, tattling or gossiping. You can provide important information that may prevent harm either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what you know or hear.
• Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).
• Senseless violence is hard for everyone to understand. Doing things that you enjoy, sticking to your normal routine, and being with friends and family help make us feel better and keep
us from worrying about the event.
• Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. They may be unable to handle their anger, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or suffering from mental illness. Adults (parents, teachers, police officers, doctors, faith leaders) work very hard to get those people help and keep them from hurting others. It is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really upset or angry and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
• Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.
• Violence is never a solution to personal problems. Students can be part of the positive solution by participating in anti-violence programs at school, learning conflict mediation skills, and seeking help from an adult if they or a peer is struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.
THANKS to the Town of Westport’s Facebook page for providing this video (livestreamed by Jonathan Kaner). It includes 1st selectman Jim Marpe, superintendent of schools Dr. Colleen Palmer, Staples High School principal James D’Amico, and Westport police chief Foti Koskinas.
Staples High School had long planned a lockdown drill for this week. The day and time were unannounced, however, to make it as realistic as possible. It is uncertain whether today’s lockdown at Staples was part of that planned drill, or not.
This afternoon, superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer sent this message:
Dear Families of Westport Students,
There is no known threat at this time, but out of an abundance of caution due to some information that has been uncovered during the school day, Staples High School will be dismissed at approximately 1:15 p.m. this afternoon. Until dismissal, students and staff have been asked to shelter in place.
WPD is on site with support. Please do not disrupt our dismissal by coming to the high school at this time.
All after-school activities at Staples are cancelled.
Further communication will be forthcoming.
Staples High School (Photo copyright Lynn U. Miller)
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