Newtown school tragedy: A Catholic response

| Jill Moes | December 31, 2012 | 1 Comment

The Catholic Spirit invited Jill Moes, principal of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in Hastings who previously worked as a public school psychologist, to offer a Catholic response regarding the Dec. 14 school shootings in Newtown, Conn.



The recent tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have called us all to partake in small moments of reflection this holiday season. I am no different. As a Catholic school principal, I have spent long hours examining the tragedy through my own role as a school administrator, as well as my role as an employee of the Church.

Many years ago, I worked as a public school assistant principal and school psychologist. I was involved in very difficult discipline issues on a daily basis across all grade levels, from early childhood through 12th grade, and I recognize that public school administrators deal with difficulty every day.

I feel that my unique history with both public and Catholic education enables me to have an interesting perspective when examining how the tragedy at Sandy Hook relates to our Catholic schools. This perspective continues to remind me of how blessed I am to work in the environment I do.

Praying as a community

On Dec. 21, there was a moment of silence in Newtown for all those who lost their lives on that tragic day. At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Hastings, we do not have moments of silence. Instead, we pray out loud, together as a school.

We were able to come together on Monday morning in our school gymnasium as a community to intercede for all those affected by the shooting. We prayed for the victims, their families, and even for Adam Lanza [the perpetrator].

As a previous school psychologist, I cannot help but wonder about Lanza’s past and cannot help but wonder what measures could have been taken to prevent this tragedy. I am not alone; so many people in our global community are also struggling with these questions.

One preventative measure that is often tossed around in legislative meetings and academic discussion is the creation of an environment in which bullying and low self-worth is virtually non-existent. Indeed, the issue of bullying played into almost all of the discipline issues that I dealt with as a public school administrator.

The self-worth of an individual influences all other aspects of the culture of a school. When students have a positive self-image, they are more productive, kinder and more considerate of those around them. When young students do not feel that they are worthy beings, they lash out and emotionally and physically hurt other students. I am asked frequently about why there is less bullying in Catholic schools, and I quickly conclude that it is the culture that a Catholic school provides.

Our school culture is a beautiful balance of respect for each other and a respect for life. Our Catholic faith is founded on our belief that every child is a gift from God with unique talents and gifts. This belief is the foundation of our schools, and we treat our students with respect and love as if they are our own children. We provide rules and procedures to protect them and we enforce these procedures in a kind and gentle way that articulates to our students that we truly care for them.

Catholic schools provide spiritual growth and moral development which is encouraged through instruction in the Catholic faith, weekly liturgy and daily prayer. It is really hard to be a bully to your classmate when you come together and pray for each other every morning (as well as numerous times throughout the day).

Students are often made aware of the difficulties that each and every one of their peers is bringing to school through prayer: a grandmother who is sick, a pet who is dying. We pray for each other.

Catholic schools teach compassion and give students sensitivity toward those who are struggling, and even go beyond the school walls and into the communities in which we live. All grade levels at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School have multiple community service projects. This helps students see beyond themselves and teaches all of us to help serve others.

Catholic schools are small and have small class sizes. They are schools where everyone knows your name and administrators know the parents personally.

At the center of our school’s success and culture is our greatest asset — our Catholic school teachers. These professionals bring to the classroom the highest degree of skill, commitment and caring. They uphold our tradition of academic rigor and prepare students for the day when they will use their gifts to better their community. Our families understand that our school staff is serving them and that Catholic school teachers believe that their work is a ministry.

I think one of the best parts of working in a Catholic environment is the immense parental support I receive. When I did discipline as a public school administrator, I was so discouraged when I would call a parent and the first response was, “Not my child. . . . Prove it was my child.”

Even with video proof, parents would still be skeptical of my authority and would turn a blind eye to the problems concerning their children. As a Catholic school principal, if I need to call home to a parent, I am confident that the parent will support the disciplinary actions of the school (and will reflect these decisions in their own parental actions at home).

We share the same morals and values and discipline with our families.  Our Catholic school students are not perfect and may make the wrong choice like any other child but, as a community, we are able to help them resolve the situation and will encourage them to determine a better, more respectful choice for next time.

This process often includes reflection on their Catholic identity as well as their relationship with God, and is done in a way that is respectful to the student. We treat our students as we would want to be treated.

Developing leaders

During our community prayer time for the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary, as I watched our community come together in a time of tragedy, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had Adam Lanza graduated with a Catholic education.

As a previous public school administrator, I of course understand the hard work our public school teachers are doing, as well as the effort our public school administrators are putting in while trying to support them.

But I cannot help but feel blessed to a part of a Catholic school team. We are developing the leaders for tomorrow, full of compassion and love.

I will continue to trust my students’ judgment in the decisions that will someday affect all of us. As graduates leave our Catholic schools, I am confident that we have taught them well and that we, as a community, will continue to support them in prayer — a prayer we will pray out loud.

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