America grieved Friday after a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., left more than two dozen dead, including 20 children -- news that hit at least one well-known Alaskan particularly hard. It also spurred discussion of safety in Alaska’s own schools, and the steps that are taken by officials to prevent a similar massacre.
The shooter in Friday’s incident was initially identified as 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, but that was later corrected to 20-year-old Adam Lanza, Ryan's younger brother. Fox News reported that Ryan was in custody, but it wasn't immediately clear if he was involved in the shooting.
Twenty-seven people were killed in the rampage, including the gunman. Among the dead was Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy, who was a teacher at the Sandy Hook Elementary, but who was found dead at her home, apparently killed before Adam went to the school.
As America turned to news outlets for information, hoping that the number of dead would not continue to climb as the day wore on, people from around the country and in Alaska reacted to the tragic news.
'I'm just sick and in tears'
Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell had a particularly personal connection to the tragedy in Connecticut. He grew up in Connecticut and attended the school where the shooting occurred. Treadwell was on hand in Anchorage as Gov. Sean Parnell was preparing to roll out his budget for Fiscal Year 2014 in Anchorage, but he took the time to post a note to his Facebook page:
From the second through the fifth grade, I was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School, site of today's tragic events. The park where the press conference was held afterwards was Treadwell Park, named for my father who was for several years First Selectman (Mayor) of that town before his death in 1972. I'm just sick and in tears for these kids, these teachers, these families. I know those hallways like the back of my hand, and those playgrounds, and to think today that they are the scene they are just breaks my heart. Hug your kids, say your prayers, and work for peace, and appreciate every day we have with each other in this world.
Treadwell said that his brother still lived about 20 miles from the town, and he had recently hosted a friend from Newtown, who was in Anchorage for the Anchorage International Film Festival. He said that the nature of the town and region made this crime all the more shocking.
"I was a paperboy there, and there were far more woodchucks on my paper route than there were mailboxes to put newspapers in," Treadwell said. "It's a rural part of the state, an old farming community, and they’ve kind of been very proud that they didn’t have the big-city problems that other places have."
He added that many well-known people and successful industries have called the area home in the past.
"They should be known for that, not for something like this," Treadwell said of the shooting.
"...(O)ur hearts are broken today for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost," President Barack Obama said in reacting to the news. The White House ordered all American flags lowered to half-staff.
Despite a day busy with the annual budget announcement, Gov. Parnell paused to offer his own sympathies over the events in Connecticut.
"Our thoughts and prayers and our condolences go out to all those impacted by the shooting," Gov. Parnell said. "I just wanted to express our sadness and our sense of loss with the people of that community and the nation as well."
Alaska’s own history of school violence
Alaska has had its own incidents or school violence scares, including a school shooting in rural Bethel that left two people dead and saw 16-year-old Evan Ramsey convicted of murder. In February of 1997, Ramsey entered the school with a shotgun and injured three students, killing one, and also killed the school principal.
In April 2005, a 17-year-old Palmer High School student was arrested after threatening to shoot other students. Those threats occurred on the sixth anniversary of the Columbine, Colo., school shooting that killed 13 people and was once the deadliest school shooting in American history.
Four years earlier, a man walked onto the campus of Mountain View Elementary in Anchorage and began slashing children with a fillet knife, seriously injuring several. Jason Pritchard, 33 years old at the time of the attack, with a history of mental illness, was sentenced to two 99-year prison terms in relation to that attack.
According to Anchorage police spokeswoman Anita Shell, that 2001 attack prompted the Anchorage School District and Anchorage Police Department to re-evaluate their procedures for keeping students safe in the event of a major threat like a shooter or violent individual on school grounds.
“After that incident they developed a protocol for teachers, and a placard-type system to indicate to police if (students) were safe in a room or if the classroom was empty,” Shell said.
Shell added that the police department works with staff to train them how to respond in a serious situation like a shooting. Because police may not arrive until several minutes after an incident begins, teachers and school staff are the first responders when it comes to keeping children safe.
Alaska school safety
At a press conference Friday, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew and Anchorage School Superintendent Jim Browder expressed sadness and offered their condolences to the victims of the Connecticut shooting and their families.
Mew and Browder emphasized that school and police officials have trained and will continue to train for crisis situations in schools. Browder said that each school has a unique plan for emergencies and schools regularly run drills for lockdowns and other emergency situations.
“Not only do we do drills, but schools go into stay-put and lockdown frequently, because of police activity in the area,” Mew added. “So they’re getting some sort of real-time practice, and the police department is getting some practice as well.”
Mew said that each high school has two security-resource officers stationed in it, who are also responsible for nearby middle and elementary schools.
Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District Superintendent Deena Paramo also sent a letter to parents and stakeholders, outlining the measures that the schools system takes to provide a safe environment for children.
Parents, kids, and guns
The tragedy in Connecticut was still fresh Friday evening, and details about the mental state of the shooter and the events leading up to the shooting were sure to continue rolling out over the weekend. Shooter Adam Lanza was still mostly a mystery.
But what can be learned from the shooting? Browder said that incidents like the Connecticut shooting always make school officials sit up and take notice and re-evaluate their own procedures, but it may be too early to say what specific changes could come from the most recent shooting.
Mew emphasized that it’s vital for anyone with information about a threat to local schools to share that information with authorities, or anybody who can help.
“It’s really, really important for students and parents to pass on information when it becomes available to them,” Mew said. He emphasized that he didn’t know what information may have been available prior to the Connecticut shooting, but added that any leads could help deter such incidents.
Even before President Obama held his press conference reacting to the tragedy in Connecticut, debate had already begun over gun control in the U.S. That’s a regular reaction to such a massacre – it also happened in July when James Holmes allegedly shot up a Colorado movie theater, or in 2011, when Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in the head by Jared Lee Loughner.
The Seattle Times reported Friday afternoon that the debate had already begun. Reports indicated that the suspected shooter used two handguns and a .223 M4 carbine.
Alaska is no stranger to guns and gun violence, including the 1997 school shooting in Bethel. According to 2009 data, 71.4 percent of Mat-Su residents owned guns, along with 52.6 percent in Anchorage. The national average for gun ownership was 34.5 percent.
Statewide, about 60 percent of Alaskans own guns.
Alaska also has a higher-than average rate of gun deaths. In fact, as of October of last year, the state’s gun deaths per capita was the highest in the nation, with about 20 gun deaths per 100,000 residents. The national average is about half that.
For many Alaskans and Americans, though, the debate can wait. Now is a time for mourning, for parents to sit down with their children and to evaluate what can be done to stop tragedies like the murder of 20 children in Connecticut on Friday before they happen.
The National Association of School Psychologists has a helpful guide for parents who want to talk to their children and reassure them in the wake of a catastrophe.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com