It was about 5:40 a.m. in Soldotna on Friday when a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people.
But information spreads fast and by midday several classes were paused so teachers could talk to students about what they had been texting, Facebooking and talking about all morning. By midday, several groups had come up with a plan to help students connect and support people affected by the shooting.
So, on Tuesday morning, several hundred students, teachers and staff wore white and gathered in a large heart shape in the Soldotna High School’s cafeteria for a photograph to be sent to a teacher in Newtown who will share it with victims of the shooting.
It was an effort several students said they hoped would lighten the hearts of people whose lives had been irrevocably shattered by the deaths.
“It’s mainly to give them hope to not be disappointed in life and in people,” said Olya Sergyeyeva, 16, a Soldotna High School senior.
Sergyeyeva was one student in a steady sea of white that streamed around in the cafeteria at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning as the group packed together for the picture.
She said she was happy to show her support, but concerned about the sentiment.
“I think, it’s kind of sad that something had to happen for people to be all united right away all of the sudden ... it’s just weird,” she said. “If people actually want to support each other, support each other all the time, not just because something happened.”
Like Sergyeyeva, senior Johnathon Kreider, said wearing white would not help to bring the lost lives back, but he said he felt the need to do something.
“I know that wearing something doesn’t do much but its about the thought that counts,” said Johnathon Kreider, senior. “We can’t really give much, we can’t give any kids back but we can give what we can.”
While the event did not directly affect him, Kreider said he still wanted to “give his heart out” to those affected.
He said when he thought of the possibility of his youngest sister being killed, he had a hard time trying to picture how he would react.
“I couldn’t deal with that. I couldn’t do that,” he said. “She’s just the entire spark of our family right now, just everywhere at once. I just couldn’t think about it.”
Just before the group gathered, English teacher Matt Walton had several students lined up in the commons area while others shouted instructions about how the heart should be shaped from the second story of the school.
Several of Walton’s students served as placeholders while the rest of the student body filled out the heart.
Walton said he was not surprised that so many kids were willing to participate in the memorial event.
“How can you not be affected by something like that,” he said. “It was their opportunity to say, ‘You know what? We’re Sandy Hook today. We feel you. Everybody needs a kind word, especially now,” Walton said.
Superintendent Steve Atwater blogged Friday that he was “shocked and saddened” by the days events.
“All of us at KPBSD offer our condolences to the victims and their loved ones,” he wrote.
District Spokeswoman Pegge Erkeneff said Monday she had taken several phone calls from parents Friday and after the weekend wondering what the district was doing to keep students safe.
Several people asked about lockdown drills on the district’s Facebook page.
“We work with all of our administrators and each school has ‘hit the deck’ drills, intruder drills and we work with local law enforcement,” Erkeneff said. “We’ve done that with all of our schools very deliberately and while we’re confident that we’re practicing safety we are looking at ways to improve.”
The district’s leadership meet will meet today to go over its emergency action plan, said Dave Jones, assistant superintendent.
While details of that plan are not available to the public for security reasons, Jones said he was confident the district had a good plan in place.
Each school is required to carry out two lockdown drills a year, one in the fall and one in January after the holiday break, he said.
“In our plan is that at least one of those two drills needs to include the participation of local emergency folks, police and fire,” Jones said. “They’ve been part of our emergency action plan for years.”
Both Jones and Erkeneff said parents who were worried about safety should contact their child’s school principal to find clarification on school safety policies.
Districtwide, a moment of silence was observed on Monday at 9:41 a.m., although participation at the elementary school level was done on a class by class basis.
Erkeneff said several parents had contacted the district to make sure no one told their children what had happened.
At the high school level, however, it is nearly impossible to control how quickly word of the shooting spread.
“It’s just instant,” said Soldotna High School principal Todd Syverson. “I think especially with younger parents, the news spread quickly. Parents were texting kids, kids were texting kids. It was instant.”
Several classes stopped to allow students the opportunity to talk about what they were feeling, Syverson said.
“Sometimes it’s just important for kids to have an opportunity to talk it through,” he said.
Shae VanMeter, a junior, said she read an article about the shooting in her language arts class and immediately wanted to do something for victims of the massacre.
“We came up with the idea of everybody wearing white,” she said.
She and a classmate made signs to hang around the school reminding students to wear the color Tuesday in preparation for the photo.
“It really just breaks all of our hearts to know something like that would happen,” VanMeter said. “I have a little brother that’s in elementary school ... it really hits me that those are just little kids and it’s crazy. I just wanted to do something, even though we’re in Alaska and it’s in Connecticut, I just wanted it to happen.”
As she walked around the school and saw all of the white, VanMeter said it “filled her with joy.”
For the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary, VanMeter said she hoped they understood that good people across the nation could come together for them.
“Hopefully it’s just kind of more a little bit of relief for them seeing that even people in Alaska are still thinking of them, even people in small town Soldotna are thinking about it,” she said.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* A candlelight vigil is being planned for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Leif Hansen Memorial Park, 10959 Kenai Spur Highway in Kenai. Organizer Krista Kimple said candles would be provided.