School safety data shows weapons in schools rare in NH, but increasing

  • Crosses with the names of Tuesday's shooting victims are placed outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Jae C. Hong

Monitor staff
Published: 5/28/2022 8:48:27 PM

When Concord school psychologist Melissa Pazdon heard the news Tuesday evening about the school shooting in Uvalde Texas, she immediately sent out an email to all her fellow employees at Christa McAuliffe School, to prepare them for work the next morning.

Pazdon linked a sheet of resources from National Association of School Psychologists with best practices for talking to children about violence. Among the recommendations were “reaffirm safety,” “make time to talk,” and “maintain a normal routine.”

“One of the most important things we can do is have the most normal school day that we can, where everything is on schedule and routine and predictable and what they would expect,” Pazdon said. “No matter what day of the week it is or what is going on around them in this world.”

In the aftermath of a school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two adults dead, local New Hampshire educators have been working to respond to grief, fear and anger over the tragedy within their own school communities, emphasizing their schools’ safety measures and available mental health supports.

While New Hampshire is a safe state, school shootings like the one in Texas forces students, teachers and parents to wonder – can it happen here? Instances of guns in schools, while still rare, are increasing in the state.

“It’s weighing heavily on all of us, and I think the most important thing in all of this is that it should. I feared people would become desensitized,” Pazdon said. “In education, you want to teach but you also want to help; you want to protect. You care for these little humans like they are your own because they are your own for at least that year that you’re with them. It’s been a very difficult week for all of us.”

In the Merrimack Valley and Andover districts, superintendent Mark MacLean said that school counselors began planning ways to support students the minute they heard about the shooting in Uvalde to help them process the tragic news. It’s a lot to process.

“Students and employees in both districts are incredibly saddened and outraged by the situation,” MacLean said. “They’re grief-stricken, and their hearts go out to those in Uvalde and beyond. Every time events like this transpire, it hits a raw nerve in the educational community. Folks look forward to legislative changes that will help put an end to school violence.”

Some school districts, including Franklin, Bow and Dunbarton, announced an increased police officer presence in schools Wednesday, both for extra security and to provide extra reassurance for students.

Anxiety was heightened Friday after the NH Department of Safety announced they were investigating “school shooter” signs found in the towns of Epsom, Barnstead and Pittsfield. Pazdon said she spent time on Friday sitting with a Christa McAuliffe School teacher who had just learned her children’s school was one of the ones in lockdown while police investigated the signs.

While rates of weapons possession and violence in New Hampshire public schools is low compared to other states, the number of incidents rose significantly in the 2020-21 school year. In 2020-21 there was one rifle reported at Nute Junior High School in Milton, one firearm incident involving multiple weapons reported at Kennett High School in North Conway and 11 reports of “other firearms,” a category which includes BB guns and similar weapons, at various schools according to New Hampshire Department of Education school safety data.

Also in 2020 there was a shooting at Second Start, a private adult education non-profit in Concord, in which a student died by suicide after first firing a gun at a staff member, according to a Concord Police report.

In comparison, the years 2015 to 2018 saw no instances of firearms in New Hampshire public schools, while there were two instances of “other firearms” in the 2018-19 school year and two instances of “other firearms” in the 2019-20 school year.

First-degree assaults have also risen sharply, with 18 first-degree assaults reported in New Hampshire public schools in 2020-21 school year compared to seven in 2019-20 and none from 2015 to 2018. The increase occurred even during the pandemic when many schools were remote for long periods of time.

Pazdon said educators and parents can use different approaches to talk to children about a violent tragedy, depending on their age. While teenagers need to be given an outlet to talk about the situation, Pazdon said for students in kindergarten through second grade, it’s best to maintain a normal routine and not bring it up unless they have questions, in which case educators should provide reassurance of safety and validate feelings. She recommends not exposing children to media coverage about school shootings if possible.

For older elementary students, who are more likely to have seen the news or had conversations with their parents, teachers may address the topic more directly.

“This is where our classroom teachers might start the day with a morning meeting and just check in with our kiddos,” Pazdon said. “And again, go over and reassure them of their safety, remind them of why we practice safety drills and again stress that they are safe, that we are here to keep them safe and that’s why we practice those things because all they need to do is follow our direction.”

New Hampshire was the first state to adopt the Jesse Lewis Choose Love social-emotional learning curriculum, part of a national movement founded by Scarlett Lewis in memory of her 6-year-old son who died in the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Lewis spoke at Concord High in November, where she discussed the importance of giving students the social and emotional tools to care for their mental health.

At Kearsarge, superintendent Winfried Feneberg and assistant superintendent Michael Bessette reminded community members in a letter Wednesday about the school’s security measures but added that the best prevention strategies are access to mental health services and being aware enough to notice warning signs.

“If you or your students ever feel that they have encountered such information, please do not hesitate to reach out to your local authorities, school administrator or guidance counselor to share your concerns,” Feneberg and Bessette wrote. “‘See something, say something’ remains our best means of helping others to get the mental health supports they may need to avoid tragic events such as this from occurring in our schools.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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