How do you talk to your kids about school shootings? See what a Boys Town psychologist says, and offer your own thoughts here.
News of the tragic shooting at a Connecticut elementary school reverberated through Nebraska and Iowa schools Friday.
In Lincoln, police notified school officials that they would have an “increased presence” in school neighborhoods.
Several metropolitan area schools sent emails or posted tips and talking points to help parents address the horrific events with children. Many also provided assurances that safety measures are in place in their schools to protect students and staff.
And in the Millard Public Schools — a district that suffered its own tragedy — talk quickly turned to how to help the Connecticut district.
“We will reach out to them, like other districts reached out to us,” Millard board member Mike Kennedy said.
Within days of the January 2011 shooting of Millard South High Principal Curtis Case and Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar, districts across the country that had suffered shootings offered Millard assistance and support.
An arrangement of flowers arrived from counselors from the Goddard Public Schools in Kansas, which went through a shooting in 1985.
The principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., which had a shooting in 1999, reached out to Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and Millard Superintendent Keith Lutz.
Mike Pate, another Millard board member, said such support helps in the midst of the shock and sadness.
“Ours was tragic enough, but when you’re dealing with 20 elementary kids, I can’t imagine how they will ever emotionally recover from something like that,” Pate said. “I just can’t.”
A few parents in the Millard district took their children out of school Friday after the shooting, said Rebecca Kleeman, district spokeswoman.
The Millard, Papillion-La Vista, Elkhorn and Westside districts all sent letters to parents Friday, offering tips on how to talk with their children about the school shooting.
“We just want to make sure we’re preparing parents in case things come up this weekend,” said Peggy Rupprecht, a Westside spokeswoman.
The Omaha school district posted a similar message on its website, and also sent each principal a reminder of the proper procedures for responding to an armed intruder.
Omaha Public Schools teachers were sent a tip sheet, prepared by the National Association of School Psychologists, to help in talking with children who might feel confused or frightened.
The sheet urges teachers and parents to keep an eye on children’s emotional state, watch for clues they may want to talk, review safety procedures, maintain a normal routine, and emphasize that schools are very safe.
Indeed, information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says violent deaths at schools account for less than 1 percent of the homicides and suicides among children ages 5 through 18.
A number of districts, including Millard, Elkhorn and Papillion-La Vista, also offered reminders of the security measures in place.
Many school buildings now have controlled entries that require visitors to buzz in or check in with a guard at the entrance.
Elkhorn’s buildings, for example, all have controlled entries. Superintendent Steve Baker said he had received several emails from staff Friday thanking district officials for having such measures in place.
Diane Ostrowski, a spokeswoman for the Council Bluffs Community School District, said its offices had received a handful of calls from parents who wanted to make sure school officials knew about the situation.
“With the safety precautions we have in place in our schools, people know we’re doing everything in our power to keep the kids and adults in our buildings safe,” she said. “And it is a good opportunity to reinforce that.”
Pat Friman, a psychologist and director of the Boys Town Center for Behavioral Health, said adults worry more about such possibilities than children do. “These events seem like they’re happening very frequently, but they’re still gross anomalies,” he said.
Friman recommended, as do the school tip sheets, turning off news coverage for the time being.
Younger children in particular may not even be aware of the event. Parents should wait for them to raise the topic. “I don’t think it’s up to parents to be the deliverers of the tragedies of the day,” he said.
If children do ask, use certainties, not probabilities. Tell them they are safe in their school, not that they should be safe. “Children aren’t statisticians,” he said. There is a chance a plane could go down, but there’s no sense telling a child that.
Parents also should answer in a straightforward fashion. Keep it short and wait for the next question. Patiently answer until the child gets interested in something else.
He also advised against asking kids how they’re doing or having them talk to a counselor unless there’s clear evidence that they have been traumatized.
That said, parents and others should watch for signs of serious distress; specifically, disruptions of sleep, appetite and activities — particularly those they normally enjoy — for more than a couple of days. At that point, he said, speak with someone: a primary care provider, a teacher, a counselor and then a mental health professional.
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