To the average passer-by, schools throughout Stephens County may have appeared to be continuing business as normal when classes resumed Monday morning and that is exactly what area superintendents had hoped. Monday was the first day for students, nationwide, to return to their classes, following a shooting Friday, in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 elementary children, ages 5-7, were killed, along with six educators, who are now hailed as heroes.
But, appearances could be deceiving, as each district methodically and quietly took steps to increase security and make sure educating students and keeping them safe remained top priority.
Of the three districts The Banner checked with — Duncan, Marlow and Comanche — attendance did not appear to be drastically decreased. These three districts are the largest school districts within Stephens County, with Duncan comparable to Newtown, which has four elementary schools. Duncan has five, plus a pre-K site, a middle school, an alternative school and a high school.
Marlow Superintendent George Coffman visited each of the three campuses in his district to make sure teachers, parents and other staff knew he was available.
“I made the trip and asked that same question — if attendance was down,” he said. “We weren’t down anywhere.”
Friday, several calls were placed to the administrators and teachers, from concerned parents, and those concerns were quickly addressed, Coffman said. Duncan Superintendent Sherry Labyer said they too received concerned emails and texts from parents. She said she assured them procedures were being reviewed.
On Monday, Marlow Police officers had increased their patrols and will continue to do so this week. Coffman credited the strong relationship between the district and the local law enforcement. Part of that is attributed to the fact the officers have children and grandchildren in the district, and many are also Marlow graduates.
“We tried to be proactive and not reactive,” Coffman said. “We did not broadcast our TVs. We felt it was not appropriate and hopefully the parents and churches are addressing those issues. The hardest part is the political views, but we’re here to educate.” Coffman said the situation is traumatic enough for everyone, adults, parents, and teachers, without adding to it, which was why he ordered the TV’s to be off.
Duncan’s central enrollment office reported there were 61 more students absent Monday, in comparison to a week earlier.
“There are all kinds of variables,” Labyer said Monday. “The holidays may have students out. We do have a virus going around. It is hard for me to attribute 100 percent of the absences due to fear of coming to school.”
In Comanche, Superintendent Terry Davidson said enrollment appeared to be consistent with previous days, other than a few who may have the stomach virus that is circulating.
Labyer, Coffman and Davidson, all said they have been reviewing security and emergency plans, and for Labyer, she admits it was needed.
“We discovered that we have some inconsistencies,” she said.
“We reviewed all of our safety procedures to ensure that we are vigilant. What we did this morning was approve consistency across the district. We reviewed all of our procedures for visitors in the school.”
In Duncan, Labyer said the visitors will now be required to show identification upon entering a building. Visitors stepping onto a Marlow campus will be required to wear a school-approved badge, or they will be asked to leave. Law enforcement will be called immediately if the person isn’t known.
Coffman said, in order to provide additional safety, emergency plans would not be made public, but the staff is rehearsed in them and local law enforcement also has a copy of the plans. He believes it’s also helpful that all campus buildings are clearly identified.
“We have tried to address several things,” he said.
Davidson said that in his district they have been working on a complete overhaul of a new security system, prior to Friday’s school shooting. He said he also met with his principals to review the emergency plan.
“We budgeted in our last bond for cameras and are seeking E-rate funding, which is federal funding, to increase our security,” Davidson said. Comanche school has an alarm system which is coded depending on the emergency. While some buildings have an intercom system, Davidson said that does have drawbacks and may not be the best thing as it becomes public broadcast inside the schools.
“The idea though is to practice and be aware of what we need to do and follow protocol,” he said.
Labyer said even though they are addressing the visitor policy, it does come with challenges in the high school’s current building condition.
“You have to walk through the front part of the school to get to the office. With the bond issue we are reconfiguring the entire space but right now that is a challenge,” she said.
All three superintendents agreed that while keeping students safe is priority, educating them still remains their number one job.
“I still feel that educators believe it is their job to take care of kids. Educators make sure their students are safe. As educators, I believe we all go the extra mile,” Labyer said.
Coffman shared this, “The President did a good job. Yes, there’s the separation of church and state, but I was pleased he mentioned God. He did a wonderful job of utilizing God. I hope that in my lifetime, in my career, I never have to deal with something like this. The best part is that living in a small community like this, everybody looks out for us.”
Among the things that the superintendents did to keep routine:
Labyer said she met with the student leadership team, which has about 40 students.
“They all had on the Connecticut school colors but they were upbeat.” Additionally, she requested the school counselors attend the meetings and be available for the high school students if they wanted to talk.
Davidson said that each year at this time, the kindergarten students visit his office and he reads to them. The tradition carried on Monday.
“We are all a little bit emotional,” Davidson said. “Something like this causes us to hold our kids closer.”
Labyer said that the district is asking the community be involved.
“If they hear of any threats to our school or our community, make sure you bring this information to the proper authorities in the school,” she said.
Banner reporter Megan Bristow contributed to this story.