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Julia O'Malley: When Sandy Hook sinks in at school

Julia O'Malley

The last week has not been an easy one in Anchorage schools. Just below the surface, feelings about what happened in Newtown, Conn., are still raw.

People who work in schools and students old enough to absorb the facts of the shooting told me this week that they can't avoid the grim mental exercise of putting themselves in the shoes of those at Sandy Hook Elementary. Since the news broke, feelings of fear, grief and vulnerability have been hitting without warning like aftershocks.

I visited Chugiak High School on Wednesday, intending to talk to an Anchorage Police Department school resource officer about student safety. Before that interview, I took a few minutes with principal Sam Spinella. I asked what he'd thought about once the news set in last week. Emotion gripped his voice. He apologized and took a second to collect himself.

"As an educator, I immediately see kids' faces and to me, that is just devastating," he said quietly.

He and his assistant principals talked soon after the news broke, he said. The school, like all Anchorage public schools, has procedures for a situation like that, which he would implement. But beyond that, every principal has to decide individually what he or she would do if someone harmful were in the school. Spinella said he and the other principals would likely confront a shooter. But the reality of what that would look like is terrifying.

"I can't tell you exactly what I'd do. I'll tell you one of the things I'd do right away is pray. ... it's pray as I walk, it's not stop and pray," he said. "I just know that I have to have wisdom as to how to deal with that situation."

These kinds of dangers weren't even within the realm of possibility when he got into education, he said. I asked him about the suggestion some people have made that teachers should carry guns.

"I don't think it's wise," he said.

Not everybody is comfortable being put in the position of having to potentially shoot someone. It's a lot to ask of teachers. Chugiak has two Anchorage Police Department officers at the school. Spinella prefers that model, he said.

It was lunch hour. I talked with a few students next, before my APD interview. One of them, Carly Metcalf, 18, told me that she heard about what happened at Sandy Hook last week in her keyboarding class but it took time to absorb. The past couple of days at school, she thought about it when she found herself alone in the hall, she said. She also thought about it when she went to the mall to go Christmas shopping.

"It just scared me and I've never been scared before," she said. "It's like there's crazy people everywhere and what can you do to stop it, really?"

You can't stop it, she said. All you can do is be prepared. That doesn't mean more guns in schools, she said. Teachers have enough to worry about.

Thinking about the 6-year-old of a family friend brought the loss home for her, she said.

"Knowing those 6-year-olds and those 7-year-olds and knowing their whole life is ahead of them," she said, tears filling her eyes. "God, it's so sad."

You have to be grateful, she said.

"We're lucky every day to just be where we are and be safe; we're really lucky every day to, like, come home."

Anchorage Police resource officer Cody Musgrave met me at the office and we walked though the halls as lunch wound down. Musgrave makes a couple school arrests every week for things like drugs and fighting, but at Chugiak, a lot of his work is building relationships with students, helping them sort things out before they escalate.

He sees himself as the guard dog at the high school, he said. He and the other school officer would go right into any situation like Newtown. They would not wait for backup, he said.

"We know, our families know, that we take risks. We know that we might not walk away from that," he said.

School shooters pick targets where they don't think they'll be challenged. Just having officers in the school is a deterrent, he said. He's heard it suggested that every school have a police officer. He thinks that's a good idea. It doesn't have to be expensive, he said. There are plenty of retired officers in every community who would love to volunteer.

Musgrave has five children. Of everything, it's the thought of the Sandy Hook parents that gets to him.

"They are going to deal with this forever," he said.

We rounded a corner and walked into a long hallway that was decorated for Christmas. We talked about the idea of arming teachers or limiting access to high-powered guns. He wasn't sure about either of those ideas.

I asked him about a paper chain hung along the ceiling for the length of the hall above us. Each of the links on the chain had a message written on it describing something nice someone did for someone else, he said. He explained it was part of a program called Rachel's Challenge, named for Rachel Scott, a girl who died in the Columbine school shooting. Chugiak students made it before the Sandy Hook shooting, Musgrave said.

Scott left behind journals that talked about her desire to change the world through small acts of kindness, he said. The Rachel's Challenge programs are meant to address bullying and combat isolation in schools. Little, positive gestures are really valuable at school, Musgrove told me. People might overlook it but his experience has shown that keeping students connected to one another keeps them from harming themselves and others. He read one of the messages written on one of the chain links: "Bethany scratched Lauren's back." He laughed. I laughed. It felt nice to laugh after a morning of sad conversations.

"See?" he said. "They don't have to be amazing."

There isn't one easy solution to keep what happened at Sandy Hook from happening again but, he said, simple acts of kindness still go a long way.


Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at



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