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Texas tragedy hits home for local school and child care leaders

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Published: May. 25, 2022 at 8:24 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Dr. Jennifer Lowery has led Tea Area School District for 10 years and is a mother of three children ages six to 14.

She will not let her youngest see the footage of Tuesday’s elementary school shooting in Texas that killed 19 children and two teachers in one classroom.

Her first thoughts when she saw it?

“It takes your breath away,” Lowery said. ”It lets you know, whether it was this situation or in Buffalo, or any of them in the past, that life is precious, and we need to take care of everyone around us.”

Kerri Tietgen is the CEO of EmBe, which, among many programs for women and children, provides a day care program for 850 elementary school children ages six thru fifth grade.

Like Lowery, Tietgen is a mother who found Tuesday’s Texas tragedy “devastating.”

“It’s hard to think about or speak to without getting emotional,” Tietgen said. “As a parent, as a community member, as someone responsible for serving 850 children a day, the weight of this weighs heavy on each one of us.

“What’s obvious is that it can happen anywhere, anytime. That’s frightening. I don’t think I could say anything else besides that’s terrifying to think about. You could get lost in panic in a debilitating way when you think about the possibilities of what can happen.”

Both of these leaders of children’s organizations said the carnage of Tuesday is, once again, a call to action for all citizens who have any involvement or stake in the health safety of America’s young people.

Lowery said she is confident in the security systems, staff, and plans within Tea’s school buildings. But, her staff will re-assess security and teacher/staff protocols for when an intruder enters the building, as district leaders did after a Harrisburg High School student shot and injured his principal in 2015.

From when Lowery was in high school 20 years ago to even the last decade, security at schools has changed dramatically. This includes security audits from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (created 21 years ago), state resources, beefed-up security at entrances, surveillance video, and the district’s relationship with the Tea Police Department.

”This, just like each of the other incidents, will make us look deeper at what we do in terms of our overall plan, in terms our preparation and communication with our staff members as we start. And the importance of (it going) beyond just teachers, but to everyone in the system having a hand,” Lowery said.

South Dakota law currently allows school employees or volunteers to carry concealed weapons on school premises. Those individuals are designated by each district’s school board as “school sentinels,” and they must have a concealed carry permit.

Protecting the health and safety of the children is the top expectation of the staff at EmBe, Tietgen said, and the best thing her staff can do to prevent a mass slaughter in either of EmBe’s two Sioux Falls locations — downtown and on the south side of the city — is to know what to do when the situation arises.

Like Lowery, she is confident in the security system of her building. Child care areas are locked. Staff have individual pass codes to get into the building. Only secured individuals, and approved parents, can get into kids’ areas such as classrooms, play rooms, and the facilities’ gyms.

Background checks are done on employees. Tietgen feels like the police will arrive swiftly to assist in crisis.

“But no matter what we do — protocols, procedures — we could do a lot of things,” Tietgen said. “But if somebody wants to get in, what we keep finding out is — where there’s a will, there’s unfortunately a way to do that.”

Prevention of disaster goes well beyond secure buildings, both women said.

The monitoring of mental health of all of Tea Area’s 2,200 public school students is just as deep a focus for Lowery and fellow leaders.

Mass shootings are defined as incidents in which four or more victims are murdered with at least one of those homicides taking place in a public location and with no connection to underlying criminal activity, such as gangs or drugs.

Since 1966, there have been 13 mass public shootings in the United States, resulting in 146 deaths and 182 injured victims, according to the database of the website “The Conversation.”

All but two of the incidents involved a lone shooter, and the other two involved two shooters.

The murderer in each case was male, and the average age was 18 — the same age as the Robb Elementary School gunman in Texas.

These perpetrators are all either current high school students or just a few years removed from secondary education.

Identifying warning signs of those currently in school is an inexact science, but something that must be monitored as acutely as possible by all staff, Lowery said.

But she added it takes more than the school system to observe and care for the mental health of its students.

“We all work together,” Lowery said. ”Between neighbors and community members and public officials, and common citizens, I think it’s so important that we recognize individuals who are hurting, help all with belonging, and communicate with each other.

“So, we’re one piece of the system. It’s so important not to profile people, but just look at every single individual and say, ‘how can I help them today,’ and ‘do they have belonging here?’ And, I think that’s something we can all strive for.”

Tietgen also feels the responsibility of preventing tragedies goes beyond her facilities’ walls and beyond law enforcement.

“How do we identify individuals that need attention,” Tietgen said. “It’s hard to watch things that happened yesterday and not look at hindsight, and look at individuals who were close and said, ‘gosh, I guess there were some warning signs.’”

Research from CNN showed there were 288 school shootings recorded in the U.S. between 2009 and 2018.

The country with the next highest number was Mexico, with eight.

According to a 2017 Small Arms Survey, there are nearly 400 million civilian-owned guns in circulation in America. That’s more than 40 percent of the global total and equates to 120 firearms for every 100 people.

The average for the rest of the world is six per 100 people. In other words, Americans own 20 times as many guns as the rest of the humans on the planet.

On the matter of gun control, both Lowery and Tietgen declined to jump into the policy debate that continues to surround the issue. But they both agreed that finding a way to resolve the issue of weapons should not be a politically divisive topic.

”I wish we encouraged lawmakers to stop arguing about it and putting actions to solutions, Tietgen said. “Whatever it may be — mental health, gun safety. All of those things are necessary for sure.”

Tietgen choked up when asked if she hugged her two teenage kids a little tighter on Tuesday night.

“Absolutely, and, I’ll get emotional. Absolutely.”

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