Central Valley

Kids back at Modesto school where woman was killed by police; some seek counseling

Parents and students sought a sense of normalcy at Catherine Everett Elementary School on Wednesday, where class resumed a day after police fatally shot a mentally ill woman who was stabbing herself on campus.

The day was anything but normal. In the morning, a stream of police officers and administrators in suits filed on campus to field questions and help students cope with Tuesday's trauma.

More parents than usual accompanied their children to school, walking through the drizzle. Some praised the school's quick response in locking down the campus immediately after Elizabeth Catherine Kropp, 43, was spotted on campus with a meat cleaver.

"The administration and teachers did an exceptional job," said mom Kari Swanson. After taking son Jonathan home Tuesday, Swanson said she talked with him about the event and told him not to believe everything his classmates were saying.

Fifty-five of the school's 490 students missed school Tuesday; on a typical day, five are absent. Those who showed up were glad to be back and restart their routines. Getting ready for the holidays helped. With three days until winter break, students came to school with Christmas gifts for teachers and friends.

"Today is going to be a normal day of teaching and learning. That's how people feel safest," Principal Michael Brady said.

The school was sensitive to students who wanted to talk about the shooting.

Three counselors from Davis High School and three from the county department of behavioral health and recovery services were on hand for students, parents and staff. As school started Wednesday, about 15 students were visiting counselors.

A few counselors went directly to the sixth-grade class that was playing kickball for PE class when Kropp walked on campus. Some of the students saw her hurting herself and bleeding.

Behavioral health specialist Jeanine Serpa said many children were trying to process what happened and some had safety questions. She urged parents to talk with their children about the shooting and assure them that school is a safe place.

Counselors worked with students, who played games, drew pictures of Everett or their families, or wrote thank you cards for staff and police officers.

"The games help children process their emotions and get them to sit down and talk," Serpa said. "It's easier to talk about when you're doing something fun and relaxing."

Aside from the police, students didn't see evidence of the shooting Wednesday.

A hazardous materials crew spent four hours cleaning the crime scene, finishing at 2 a.m. Wednesday. They disinfected concrete, asphalt, an outside door and wall near where Kropp was shot.

"There was nothing left to look at, which is what we wanted," said Roger Orth, district director of maintenance and operations.

'Classroom cocoon'

For parents, school and police officials held an informal meeting right after classes started.

"Everybody on our staff responded perfectly," Brady told about 40 parents. "Within two minutes, we were completely locked down, and most kids came out not knowing what happened. They were in the complete safety of their classroom cocoon."

He added that many students weren't anxious or worried until they were released and saw their parents' faces and the police cars on campus.

Parents expressed appreciation for the staff's quick action to keep students and employees safe. Officials hold drills two or three times a year, and Brady said it showed Tuesday because everything went smoothly with only a few blips.

For example, a parent of a preschool student was upset that she was not part of the phone tree that delivered mass messages to parents. Brady told her the school and preschool programs are separate and that they would work on updating phone lists so all parents are notified if something similar happens.

"The what-if's will really make you nervous," Brady told the mother.

Other parents asked whether the school would increase safety measures, such as locking the front gate during the day or installing cameras.

It appears that Kropp entered the school through the front gate near the office, the only part of the fence that is open during school hours. Officials don't know how long she was on campus before the lockdown was initiated.

But Brady said concerns such as those have to be balanced against other community needs.

Parent: Can't live in fear

"I'm not sure we want to give up the freedom of the community using the school for one event like this," said Brady, noting that the school's safety committee was meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the need for safety improvements.

Most parents seemed to agree.

"I don't want my children to be more fearful," one mother said. "It was a random event. To live in fear doesn't sound like something I want to pass on to my children."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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