Courier Staff Writer
The mass murder of children in a Connecticut elementary school happened more than a thousand miles away, but Wapello County parents are still feeling protective.
“The first thing I thought of was of my little boy,” said Melissa Jessop, an Ottumwa mother with a child in kindergarten.
“If you did have that reaction, you’re not alone,” said Davis Eidahl, superintendent of Ottumwa Schools. “That’s a very human response.”
“Your first reaction is emotional, for any of us,” said Chief Jim Clark of the Ottumwa Police Department. “When we respond to an incident, we have to be [unemotional] and professional.”
But those officers are human, too.
“I have a daughter in kindergarten. When I heard, it made me want to go to my daughter’s school and just hang out. That’s the first thing I think of,” admitted Clark.
“Every parent is mourning for those parents in Connecticut,” agreed Eidahl. “When something like this happens, everyone hurts.”
Though Chief Clark said he is not privy to details of the Connecticut shooting, he felt he can say one thing with some certainty about the youngest victims: “Those kids are at an age where they are completely innocent. They don’t deserve what’s happening, and they don’t understand it either. Kindergarten students didn’t hurt this guy. They didn’t hurt anyone.”
One Ottumwa elementary school principal, Jeff Hendred, said a parent talking to him after school on Friday expressed worry.
“Parents start to feel, I guess, fear would be the word, fear creeps into their thoughts,” said Hendred. “They worry about something like that happening here. She asked if we are prepared, and I told her we are. We have a plan, and we practice it.”
Though the ability to avoid all violence is beyond schools and authorities, law enforcement experts say the plans police and schools develop really can reduce the number of casualties in a shooting incident.
“This is something you never want to think may occur, but we do plan for it,” Eidahl said. “That if a senseless tragedy would occur, we would know how to react and respond.”
Hendred said his school goes through the procedure annually at a minimum. Eidahl said after a harsh reminder like the one in Connecticut, local schools will at least do a walk through of the plans, which can help reassure staff.
“When we hear tragic news like this, we always put out an email to our building principals so they are aware,” said Superintendent Eidahl. “Our employees do a very good job that if they see something, and they aren’t comfortable, it gets reported. We want the safest possible environment we can provide. When this does occur, it brings us to a new sense of awareness ... and vigilance.”
As for the safety plans, Clark said it’s best not to share every detail publicly.
“I certainly don’t want to [discuss specifics] on any tactical response,” said Chief Clark. “We do train for active shooters, as most law enforcement agencies do.”
“The relationship we have with our local police department, and our sheriff’s department, we’ve always had a very quick response whenever they’ve been needed,” said Eidahl. “We’re fortunate to live here in Ottumwa rather than out in the country, so we do get a very quick response.”
This isn’t the first such incident in the U.S., and neither school officials or the police chief thought it would be the last.
“No one,” emphasized Clark, “can predict when or where these events are going to occur — a mall in Oregon or a school in Connecticut. All we can do, as first responders, is train and train and train. So that if, God forbid, it should occur in our community, we can keep [the tragedy] to a minimum.”