Guilderland school’s response to deaths took planning

Toward the end of the school day Thursday, leaders from Guilderland’s seven schools and district off

Toward the end of the school day Thursday, leaders from Guilderland’s seven schools and district officials are scheduled to gather in a central conference room to relive one of the town’s darkest days.

Specifically, they will discuss how Guilderland Elementary School and district officials responded in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 8 quadruple homicide at 1846 Western Ave. that took the lives of GES fifth-grader Anthony Chen, 10; his 7-year-old brother, Eddy, a GES second-grader; and their parents, Jin Feng Chen, 39, and Hai Yan Li, 38.

The investigation continues into the killings, which attracted international attention.

All school districts draw from a variety of sources to develop crisis plans that address a multitude of scenarios, ranging from natural disasters to intruders. Much of it is drilled to varying degrees of formality; at times districts will take events from other schools and “table-top” them, discussing how they should be handled locally.

“Some things we practice for; we can anticipate things,” Schenectady schools Superintendent Laurence Spring said. “Some of it is ‘Let’s know who we need in the room’ and lines of communication.”

That’s logistics. But having a plan for every scenario is impossible.

“There are no two crises that are the same,” Guilderland Superintendent Marie Wiles said. “The strength of the team is their expertise and their ability to formulate a plan to meet the needs as they present themselves, not to whip out a list of 10 steps to do.”

On that Wednesday afternoon last week, Wiles and Guilderland Elementary School Principal Allan Lockwood tried calling each other at the same time shortly before 4 p.m., as the first scant news reports emerged of the murders on Route 20. With reports of a suspect still not in custody, Wiles ordered a “lockout” — meaning after-school students and athletes were brought inside and no one was allowed in. (This is different than a “lockdown,” when an intruder is believed to be inside.) After consulting with Guilderland police, the lockout was lifted a half-hour later.

Wiles said the district began “planning for the worst.” District officials knew two students lived at the Western Avenue address.

“We were bracing for it and started to think about the next steps,” Lockwood said.

First Lockwood had a question for Wiles: ‘Should we cancel school the next day?’ Both agreed the question should be raised — and that the idea be rejected. The best thing for students would be the comfort of routine, as well as the resources of staff.

Then came the next step, a 6:30 a.m. Thursday meeting with the district’s crisis team, along with district social workers and psychologists. Roughly 15 people crammed into a Guilderland Elementary School conference room.

Teachers were called in for a 7 a.m. meeting ahead of the 7:50 a.m. start of school. Since the identity of the two slain children was not confirmed, the district was in a tight spot.

“We couldn’t confirm anything,” Lockwood said.

A message was crafted for students and staff to be both reassuring and honest: Police are investigating a crime. Police assure us we are safe. You have a lot of questions. We have a lot of questions, too.

Wiles and Lockwood said a for-now unnamed teacher deserves credit for the best decision made by the district over the past week: putting adult volunteers on buses that ran past the murder scene from Thursday through Tuesday as a calming presence.

The reaction of students has been, as expected, varied. The youngest are largely unaware. Older students have been upset or unfazed. Some have expressed anxiety for adults in their lives.

The district is also keeping an eye out for the adults, having a speaker come in this week to talk to staff about dealing with the deaths of the brothers. The district is under no illusion its response is limited to one week.

“We will be dealing with aspects of this the entire year,” Lockwood said.

District officials also looked beyond the school district, to the victims’ family. Wiles said she reached out to the family through the local Chinese Community Center regarding a memorial and was told nothing was wanted at this time.

“We want to be respectful. It’s proven to be a difficult question,” she said. “The family doesn’t want to be contacted, so we are honoring that.

“We were told ‘This should be quiet,’ ” she continued. “I don’t think you will see a huge event in Guilderland, which isn’t to say we won’t find small ways to honor the boys.”

Categories: News

Leave a Reply