Local students coping with tragedy

Displays of school colors, letters to families among tribute ideas

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CEDAR RAPIDS - As the nation begins to emerge from the shock of the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Eastern Iowa students and educators are showing their support for the East Coast community.

Even though Iowa City is more than 1,000 miles from Newtown, the tragedy strongly resonated with local learners.

“I had a student on Friday who, after taking a test, she looked really distraught and when I asked her how she was doing, she just burst into tears about the event,” said Sakinah Haque, a science teacher at Iowa City West High School. “That really stuck in my mind.”

Haque allowed the young woman to discuss her feelings about the shooting. The teacher then spent the weekend on the Internet in search of ways to help learners cope.

On Monday, Haque hosted letter-writing sessions for students during lunch and after school. The correspondence will be sent to the families and classmates of the shooting victims.

“I did a lot of writing in college … I know how powerful words can be,” she said. “I just felt like writing would be at least one way of what I feel and say is directly going into the hands of students.”

Haque’s idea had a healing impact on participants.

“When I heard about that we were actually signing letters and stuff, it felt good to actually reach out to them,” said Dionna April, a senior at the West High who wrote a letter to the parents of a Sandy Hook shooting victim. “It makes me feel really good that even though we’re so far away, we can come together for people we don’t even know to help out in their time of need.”

Stacy Haynes-Moore, a language arts and journalism teacher at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, had a similar idea. After watching a CNN Student News report on the tragedy, she and her introduction to journalism students fell silent.

“So how do you pick up from that?,” she asked rhetorically. “We just started a conversation about what are hopeful things we can do to be supportive of that community.”

The students sprang into action and designed a banner that reads “Kennedy Cares for Sandy Hook.” The sign, decorated with signatures and messages of support, is hanging in the school’s first floor academic wing hallway. It will remain there until Wednesday, when Haynes-Moore’s journalists will send it to Connecticut.

“We’re thinking of you guys,” is what senior Darcey Altschwager, a student in Haynes-Moore’s newspaper class, hopes Sandy Hook students will take away from seeing the sign. “It’s a giant greeting card.”

Straying from words, one Solon Middle School teacher decided to use fashion to show her support. Also looking to the Internet for an idea, science instructor Francesca Kaiser saw that teachers were encouraging their colleagues to wear green and white – Sandy Hook’s school colors. Kaiser emailed her middle school co-workers as well as teachers at the district’s elementary and high schools, all pressing them to spread the word and don the colors Monday.

Students at Solon High School also started a movement to wear blue in solidarity with Sandy Hook, resulting in a tricolor salute to a shaken community.


The Sandy Hook tragedy has fixed a spotlight on issues of safety and security, with a number of local districts – including Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and College Community – releasing statements of support and reassurances of emergency procedures. Gov. Terry Branstad even drew attention to a School Safety Guide Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division released earlier this year, which provides assistance for school districts looking to devise plans for dangerous situations, during a press conference he hosted with Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and division Administrator Mark Schouten on Monday morning.

Safety concerns are even occupying students’ minds.

“Not going to lie, I planned out what I would do if a gunman came in,” said Altschwager of each of her classrooms at Kennedy.

Tara Mittelberg, Altschwager’s peer and a fellow Kennedy Torch editor, said she even had a teacher outline what she would do to protect students if an armed person entered the building.

Kaiser had the same talk with her students.

“I think it’s important for kids to see their teachers as humans too. We have fears and worries and everything,” she said. “I think it’s important that that gets reinforced too, that they’re cared about. You can talk science knowledge as much as you want but sometimes you have to stop the academics and you have to meet their needs, and one of their needs is that they need to know that they’re safe and that people care about them.”

The Sandy Hook shooting already has decision makers in the Iowa City Community School District re-evaluating its plans, potentially tightening security at school entrances and reprioritizing other safety projects.

“There’s probably not any district in the county that isn’t talking about [building security] today,” added Marla Swesey, president of the district’s school board.


“You don’t have to have conversation about what’s happening but [students] can just see it throughout the day. It’s just a constant visual reminder,” Kaiser said. “It’s definitely majority staff but I was shocked by the number of students that were wearing [green and white] clothing.”

Candace Lynch, an elementary student services facilitator for the Cedar Rapids district, sent an email to faculty and administrators full of tips for how to deal with students as they process the events of Dec. 14.

She said the banner project at Kennedy and other supportive gestures can actually help the students who participate as well as the recipients.

“When that comes from kids, it’s a very positive step towards healing and feeling like you’re doing something positive to help,” she said.

The Gazette’s Gregg Hennigan contributed to this report.

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