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Perham, NY Mills reflect on tragedy in Connecticut

Marie Nitke/FOCUS The flags outside the Perham Fire Department were flown at half-staff earlier this week to honor the victims of the Newtown, Conn. school shooting.

The very thought of a school shooting causes local officials to shudder.

Perham and New York Mills schools, like others across Minnesota, are constantly preparing for a tragedy like the one Friday in Newtown, Conn., talking through procedures and offering practice drills.

But they're always hoping they never have a need for those preparations.

Minnesota law requires each school to have plans to deal with "potential violent crisis situations," from natural disasters to shootings.

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting, which left 26 people dead, including 20 children, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher are encouraging schools to take another look at their safety plans.

"It is important that everyone feels comfortable and safe and ready to handle any potential crisis," Cassellius wrote to school superintendents and principals.

Wade Setter, of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said, "it is very difficult" to prevent shootings, and advised: "The most important thing you can do to train and protect the school is to have a comprehensive school safety plan."

By chance, the New York Mills School safety team met last Monday for its quarterly review on protocol and procedures. NY Mills Superintendent Todd Cameron said planning for possible tragedies is ongoing.

The Perham safety team will meet this week for a closer look at its current plan.

"Overall, we feel confident that we are doing the best we can to protect our students in the event that something like this should occur in Perham," said Superintendent Mitch Anderson. "However, there are so many different scenarios to address that we will always be re-evaluating our protocols in an effort to strengthen them."

On Monday, schools in both Perham and New York Mills sent letters home to assure parents of their children's safety at school, and to offer suggestions to help children cope with their fears.

Perham middle school Principal Scott Bjerke stated in a letter to parents that student safety has, "always been and will continue to be our top priority. Our school has a comprehensive crisis plan in place to help avoid tragedies such as the one that occurred in Connecticut last Friday. We also hold practice drills throughout the school year."

NY Mills Elementary Principal Judith Brockway stated in a letter to parents, "Be sure to encourage care in this time of stress and confusion. Also, please know that the school is doing everything possible to keep your children safe and will continue to do so."

Teachers throughout both school districts held class discussions to help address comments, questions and concerns of students.

Both districts also paused for a moment of silence to remember the lives lost.

Following the lead of President Barack 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.

Forum's Legislative reporter, Don Davis, contributed to this report.