There are no words. Over and over last weekend, the sentence was repeated -- by community members in Newtown, Connecticut, by parents whose children escaped Sandy Hook Elementary School where the massacre took place last Friday, by newscasters themselves as they covered the tragedy, by President Barack Obama, as he tried to comfort a shattered citizenry.
But this week, educators at schools across the nation had to find the words, and try to help students grappling with the unspeakable news.
On Monday morning, officials from several area schools described how they're helping kids and parents cope with a horror that defies comprehension.
Springs School Superintendent Dominick Mucci noted the morning meeting, held with parents and children before the school day starts, was attended by double the usual number of parents of the youngest students. Throughout the day, he said, staff planned to meet with upper grade levels in the K to 8 district.
Over the weekend Mucci reported receiving numerous emails from concerned parents. "We shared information in our plan, information for parents such as books that could help them talk with their children." Additional staff was on hand for youngsters who needed consoling and an effort will be made to give parents the chance to sit and talk, if needed.
Parents of very young children may want to protect their kids from the news altogether, the superintendent acknowledged. But in today's world of incessant access to information, kids could end up learning about it from other children. At Springs' morning meeting, "We spoke briefly to acknowledge what had occurred, but reassurance was our major focus."
So it was in Sag Harbor, too. At morning program at the elementary school, Interim Superintendent Carl Bonuso reported, "We had a moment of silence and talked about why tragedy happens and the feelings we go through. We wanted to make sure children and parents know there are experienced people on staff who will love and protect them."
Like many districts, over the weekend Sag Harbor's Educational Leadership Team posted a letter to families on its website expressing condolences and offering specific strategies to parents. On Monday morning, the district's crisis management team met to consider children who might need a closer look, the interim superintendent said, and to devise ways to monitor them. "We talked about the enemy within, what to do in a positive and proactive way . . . Our mission is not only to pass on academic knowledge, but to keep an eye on all our children . . . We need to make sure that those people who carry a gun in their souls, that we help them keep their fingers off the trigger."
Bonuso observed that people look to their school's leadership for guidance and comfort; the Southampton and Montauk districts both offered those electronically. In Montauk, Superintendent Jack Perna reported sending links designed to help parents talk with kids about the tragedy by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), to parents via email over the weekend. Not all the parents in the school are signed up for the school's email alert system. "I suspect there will be more this week," Perna said.
Southampton Schools Superintendent J. Richard Boyes posted a letter dated Sunday on the district website. Once again, the focus was on reassurance. "Please know our goal is to be gentle, but honest, and to assure children that they are safe and that their schools are well prepared to take care of them at all times."
Detailing strategies from the NASP, Boyes' letter notes, "We know we can't shield children from news of this devastating event." Superintendent James McKenna from the Mattituck-Cutchogue district, offered, "We can't deny and say, 'It couldn't be us.' They're just like us [at Sandy Hook Elementary School]."
Like officials at all the districts interviewed this week, McKenna said his staff plans to review and evaluate all emergency safety protocols. "Our job is to do the best we can to be ever vigilant." East Hampton Superintendent of Schools Rich Burns posted a missive about school safety on the district website, promising to conduct the annual review of safety plans and procedures "with fresh eyes at all levels."
In Springs, Mucci said that as staff evaluates "every bit" of the school property and safety procedures, "It may cause some parents some annoyance, but I'll take the criticism," he said.