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In wake of shooting, Northland schools review security, response plans

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Duluth-area school leaders took varied approaches to dealing with Friday's school shooting in Connecticut.

Some discussed the events with their students, while others avoided the topic to give parents the chance to break the horrifying news to their children. Many took the opportunity to once again review their security policies in hopes of shielding their schools from similar attacks.

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Washburn officials did several things Friday, including talking to their high school students.

"Any kind of loss and students are sensitive," said Thomas Wiatr, high school principal and district administrator. "Knowing these were young students, they were shocked and saddened."

The district gathered its response team, inviting local police to join, and reviewed emergency protocol. It sent information to parents and posted it online. It also planned its approach for dealing with students at various grade levels on Monday.

"We listed resources on how to respond to questions on dealing with loss and tragedy," Wiatr said. "We will be able to meet the needs of students."

Duluth Edison School leaders asked staff Friday not to discuss the matter with students unless it was broached.

"We wanted parents to have the first opportunity to discuss this with your student," wrote school head Bonnie Jorgenson in a letter to parents sent Friday. Their plan is to talk with students Monday about safety procedures and the incident in age-appropriate ways.

At Esko, said Superintendent Aaron Fisher, news spread to staff but not to students. When students return next week after spending time discussing with parents, counselors will gauge the level of anxiety and see how much discussion needs to take place.

Proctor schools will do something similar, Superintendent John Engelking said.

"We had some parents calling to make sure schools are safe," he said. "That's expected."

Duluth, Proctor and Hermantown schools received a safety grant in recent years that's led to "some extraordinary training," Engelking said.

The Duluth school district had an early release day Friday, so news of the shooting hadn't spread by the time students left for home.

Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the school district takes precautions daily, including the use of security systems and partnering with the Duluth Police Department.

"We want to assure our families and community that student safety is of utmost importance in our district," he said.

Duluth police maintain a presence around Duluth schools on a regular basis, said Jim Hansen, police officer and spokesman for the department.

"Our police department and more specifically our Tactical Response Team train annually for many different scenarios, including a school response," he said.

Minnesota has endured its own school shooting nightmares. On March 21, 2005, a high school student killed his grandfather and another adult then went to Red Lake High School and killed four students, a teacher, an unarmed security officer and himself. Less than two years earlier, two students died when a fellow student shot them at Rocori High School in Cold Spring.

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius sent a letter to superintendents and principals advising them to go over safety protocols within their schools and ensure staff understand them, and gave guidance on how staff and parents can talk to their children about what happened.

Following the lead of President Obama, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton ordered American and state flags to be lowered to half staff in respect for the Connecticut victims until sunset Tuesday.

Because of the ripple effect, everyone within a school district becomes a third-party victim of what happens in incidents such as what happened in Connecticut, said Ben Wolfe, retiring grief counselor for Essentia Health St. Mary's Medical Center and founder of its grief support center. He said parents should talk about shootings with their children, so children aren't just getting information from media.

"We look at our own environment and ask, 'Are we safe?' They imagine what happened there and could it happen here," he said. "We're talking about kids who had futures. ... When someone sends their kids off to kindergarten, first grade, second grade, we expect them to come home at night."

Wolfe, who has worked with schools on activities such as lock-down drills and active-shooter trainings, said the training and preparation have to continue.

"It's important that school districts continue to work on school crisis intervention plans," he said. "You can never be 100 percent."

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