Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Norcross Police officer Natalia Watson checks out a car that pulls onto the campus of Norcross Elementary School on Monday afternoon. The Department is working with local schools to patrol the campuses in the city limits following Friday's school shooting in Connecticut.
SUWANEE -- As Christine Muller drove her 6-year-old son, Jack, to day care early Monday, she was all too aware of the silence.
It was the first morning since Friday that she'd left home with the Cooper Elementary first-grader, and everything seemed "strange."
"We got in the car, and I felt very anxious," said Muller, a Grayson resident. "As we drive in the morning, we're usually talking back and forth, and we sing along to the radio, but it wasn't that way this morning. I was trying to think of something to say to him."
Each time she tried, her voice cracked. All that came out: "We love you very much, Jack."
Following Friday's tragedy in Connecticut, many local parents like Muller said the drive to school Monday was an emotional time that left them feeling apprehensive. Police have responded to the concerns of the community by increasing their presence at all local public and private schools.
Sloan Roach, a spokesperson for Gwinnett County Public Schools, said that in addition to county police, officers from local agencies such as Lilburn, Suwanee, Norcross and other municipal officials are "providing support to our schools."
Capt. Brian Harr of the Norcross Police Department said officials are there "as a visible presence ... we've had officers there since schools opened today. They get out and make contact with principals and greet kids and parents at the door. It's been positive."
He added that there is "typically a good presence at the schools anyway, but we wanted to bring out additional staffing."
Roach said if parents drive by their children's school and see police cars, it's more than likely the reason.
"They're not there because of any incidents," Roach said. "It's a proactive step, and we feel like it will help alleviate some of the concerns."
Brandy Suber, the parent of a kindergarten student at Duncan Creek, said she felt relieved to see uniformed Gwinnett police at her child's school.
Muller said it did help knowing there were police watching over the schools Monday as she and Jack resumed the daily routine: a ride with mom to day care, followed by a bus trip to Cooper Elementary.
Upon arriving at day care Monday morning, Muller said she could see that she was not alone in her initial feelings of apprehension.
"You could tell, looking at the other parents," she said. "It was like nobody was smiling this morning. They were looking at each other, like, 'I know what you're thinking.'"
Indeed, others sensed it.
Samantha Frost walked her children to the bus stop Monday morning and "held their hands a little tighter and took a little more time giving them goodbye hugs and kisses."
Frost, whose 6- and 9-year-old girls attend Taylor Elementary, said she wished she had a good excuse to keep her children home from school on Monday in light of the tragedy.
"I'll continue to pray for the parents in Newtown, that they will have peace and comfort at this awful time," Frost added.
A killing frenzy in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead last week at Sandy Hook Elementary was so horrifying that authorities cannot say whether the school will ever reopen.
On Sunday, President Barack Obama pledged to seek change in memory of those slain Friday by a gunman packing a high-powered rifle. The president slowly recited the names of the children.
At the local level, leaders with the district said the tragedy is a topic that school counselors are equipped and ready to discuss with parents.
"Some of the best counselors in the nation are in our schools, and they are making sure they have up-to-date resources and information," Roach said. "If we have any parents or families who need help in learning how to talk to children about these things, they can contact their counselor. We encourage them to do so."
Principals from all over the district encouraged parents to do the same. Riverside Elementary Principal Craig Barlow reached out to parents on Monday in a letter he sent home with students.
"None of us can really understand why something like this occurs," Barlow wrote. "That said, it is understandable that our students may be confused or worried by information they may have seen in the news media or conversations they overheard. If you should have questions on how to talk to your child about this topic, please contact our school counselors as they have a number of resources that may be helpful to you."
In his letter, Barlow also reassured parents that the school continues to focus on the safety of students.
"Even though (Newtown, Conn.) is over 900 miles from our school, this incident has elevated the focus on safety and security at Riverside Elementary and at all schools."
Muller is thankful that her son, Jack, attends Cooper Elementary, a learning institution she feels is a "wonderful and safe school."
But still, she couldn't help but wonder Monday afternoon how her first-grader was doing.
"It's been hard to get through this day," Muller said late Monday morning. "I know the schools are doing everything possible, and I know the extra officers are checking in ... but I think about my son, and I think about what happened in Connecticut, and he could have been one of those kids. It's just so horrendous."