Members of Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence (from left) Rev. Nancy Muth from First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, Rev. Richard Fernandez, Tabernacle United Church in Center City and Ray Ranker, a senior seminary student at Lutheran Theological Seminary protested at Delia’s Gun Shop in Northeast Philadelphia in April, 2011. The group renewed its call for gun control out following the killings of 27 people in Newtown Ct. (Photo by Sue Ann Ryback)

by Pete Mazzaccaro

Newtown, Conn., is 172 miles northeast of Chestnut Hill a three-hour drive from the Local’s office at 8434 Germantown Ave.

Many had probably never heard of the tiny town just northeast of New York City until the dreadful news of the mass shooting on Friday, Dec. 14, that claimed the lives of 27 people, 20 of them 6- and 7-year-old first graders. The murders were committed by a lone gunman, Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old who we are still learning about, but who clearly suffered from a form of severe mental illness.

News of the killing shocked and saddened people around the country and in Northwest Philadelphia people reacted to the news with a mix that ranged from sorrowful condolences to expressions of frustration with current gun laws and even assurances from local schools that everything is being done to keep children safe and help them cope with the terrible facts of last week’s killings.

In a letter to parents Friday, Ed Marshal, head of school at Greene Street Friends, expressed sadness and acknowledged that the news would be especially distressing to children

“We feel great sorrow and compassion for the victims of this tragic event, as well as for their families,” Marshall wrote. “We also know that events such as these are disturbing to children and families, even at great distances from the events themselves. It is likely that you will be the first people to talk with your children about this, and we want to offer our support.

“For all children, feeling physically and emotionally safe is their most important need. We do not recommend introducing the topic with preschool-age children, and we suggest that they not watch the news while the event is so recent. As with adults, older children are likely to hear about the details and even search for the details. Simply knowing the facts provides a kind of reassurance.”

Marshall also reassured parents that the school was reviewing its security measures in light of the tragedy.

“We can also reassure students that our local police and our school are working to keep our school safe and to protect our children,” Marshall wrote. “Greene Street keeps doors locked, carefully regulates entry to buildings through video cameras, and has security staff. Over the weekend, Greene Street faculty and staff will be planning for our communications with students next week in ways that are developmentally appropriate.

Priscilla Sands, president of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, said her school was also reviewing security and focusing on training for teachers to deal with moments of trauma.

“Our teachers are our first responders,” she said, noting the heroism of those teachers and faculty at Sandy Hook who hid children and rushed Lanza to try and stop him.

“Teachers know what to do,” she said. “They instinctively act to protect children.”

Like Marshall, Sands said the she advised parents to turn off the TV, particularly for younger children, and said the school and its counselors were prepared to help any children or parents who had questions or concerns.

Above all, though, she said was that the school community was focusing on how to make sure the entire school was a community of caring and support.

“Many of our older children want to do something, and I’ve stressed that we should all watch out for each other,” she said. “The best thing we can do as a community is to care for each other.”

At Norwood Fontbonne Academy, school officials said they distributed materials to families to help them deal with questions the children might have.

“Given the diversity of our students ages and backgrounds, we decided to handle students’ questions and concerns on an individual basis, in conjunction with their parents,” said Sister Mary Helen Beirne, NFA’s head of school.

A similar note was sent to parents of Green Woods Charter School in Roxborough. The letter was signed by school CEO Jean M. Wallace, Steven C. Masterson, dean of faculty and students, and School Counselor Martha Millison.

The letter addressed any potential concerns hat parents might have with security.

“As a school, we require clearances of all adults who wish to spend time volunteering in our classrooms,” the letter read. “At both campuses we maintain active security measures including locking exterior doors at all times, video and audio verification at our K-2 main entrance, audio and electronic entrances at both campuses, mandatory check-in procedures of all visitors, and a very active adult presence in all areas of the school.

“Our local law enforcement knows us, has visited us often just to check in with us and, as an administration, we are looking, once again, at our campus and procedures; this time, sadly, with a renewed sense of purpose. Our maintenance supervisor, Joe Bauer, and our CEO, Jean Wallace, have a combined experience of over 40 years in law enforcement, and both will be reaching out for additional guidance and support should our inventory of needs warrant additional security measures.”

Local gun control advocates call for action

Schools, however, were not the only groups to respond to the tragedy.

Calls for gun control have certainly gained a great deal of momentum in the days since the shooting. Senator Diane Feingold, of California, promised to reintroduce a ban on assault weapons, a ban that was allowed to lapse in 2004. Other pro-gun senators like West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, have signaled a willingness to put real gun control in motion.

A CBS Poll poll this week showed 57 percent of Americans now believe gun laws should be tightened, while only 30 percent believe there should be no change at all.

A local organization, Heeding God’s Call, an interfaith movement that has worked for broad and sweeping gun control and has for the last several years held routine protests at area gun shops, renewed its call for action on guns. Its leaders, this weekend, called for action.

“First, we pray for the lost and all that knew and loved them,” said the Rev. James F. McIntire, the group’s board chairman and pastor of Hope United Methodist Church in Havertown. “Second, we pray for our country to heal from the deep psychic wound this morning’s slaughter has opened. Thirdly, and most importantly, we pray that the American faith community goes beyond prayer to demand action to move this country to safety from mass shootings and the daily carnage of illegal guns that cities like Philadelphia suffer every day.”

“In this time of year, sacred for so many Americans, it is beyond rational comprehension how such a massacre of innocents could occur, but it did,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, the group’s vice chair and senior rabbi of Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Manayunk “How much more obvious can it be that such senseless loss of life loss of God’s Children, as we all are demands that the American faith community call on all people and communities of faith to address gun violence as the religious and moral issue it is.”

Note: The first version of this story incorrectly referred to Priscilla Sands as the head of school at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.