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In the hours and days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I tried very hard to shield my three young boys from all of the news coverage and discussions openly shared around them. I’ll never forget going on a lunch playdate to a kid-friendly restaurant where coverage blared on the television. I asked them to turn it off. I decided then and there to break up with the news. I haven’t watched the news since. My gut reaction after that horrible tragedy was to protect my kids as much as possible from even knowing that getting shot at school was possible.
Unfortunately that strategy isn’t safe anymore. Schools now conduct active shooter drills. Teachers are taught how to hide their students and counter an attack, should it come to that.
There is no hiding from the realities of school violence anymore, so how do we prepare our kids without making them afraid to go to school? I can’t believe I’m having to think about this. I’m an elementary school librarian. I’ve been in school since I was five years old. I never thought I would have to teach my children and my students how to survive at school, but here we are.
Have Open Discussions with Your Kids
If your children ask questions about the drills at school, or if they mention hearing about school violence, address their fears and concerns without brushing them off. Keep it simple. Let very young children know these drills are meant to keep them safe. Assure them schools are safe places, and by practicing for many situations, students are prepared to be safe not only at school, but also everywhere they go. Reinforce what schools teach by having drills of your own at home. Practice fire drills and shelter-in-place drills for bad weather. Review rules about never answering the door for strangers. Role play what your children should do if someone knocks on the door. Model the behavior you want them to implement, and then relate it back to all of the practice they do at school.
Older children are aware of school shootings. To think they aren’t is very naive. Dismissing their fears by telling them a shooting could never happen at their school does them a disservice, could potentially harm them if they don’t pay attention or if they disregard drills at school, and puts a kink in their ability to rely on you for accurate information. No one wants to talk to their kids about violence at school, but communicating with kids without sharing unnecessary details could save your child’s life.
Reassure Your Kids They Are Safe
Discussions about school violence should be followed up by reassuring kids they are safe at school. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports 92 percent of schools have a plan in place for what to do in the event of a school shooting. Teachers are receiving training and administrators are taking the threat of school violence seriously. Reassure your children their school is a safe place, and drills are part of what makes school safe.
If drills create anxiety for your children, as they do for mine, make the drill relatable to them. If they play instruments, compare piano lessons and practice to drills at school. If they are dancers or gymnasts, baseball or soccer players, artists — whatever they enjoy doing and spend time practicing — compare that to drills at school. They have to practice to be the best and to be fully prepared for competitions, recitals, games, etc. It’s the same for school drills. Practice will reduce anxiety in the long run because they’ll know exactly what to do.
Validate your children’s feelings. Don’t tell them not to worry or be afraid. Let them know their emotions are appropriate and mean they are taking the drills seriously.
Teach Your Kids to Report All Threats
We all want our children to be supportive friends, and we often teach that tattling is bad, but it is imperative to teach our children to report any and all threats — even if they believe it’s a joke, and even if the threat is from a friend. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology says any child who makes a threat about hurting him- or herself or others, running away from home, or damaging property should be taken seriously. Encourage your kids to immediately talk to a teacher or trusted adult if they hear anyone making a threat. Role play is very helpful in this situation. Practice these conversations with your kids so they will recognize them and report them right away.
Take a Deep Breath and Educate Yourself
Listen, mama, this is scary stuff. I want to validate your feelings of anxiety and worry right now. I’m a mom and an educator. I also believe knowledge is the best weapon you have. Understand your school’s safety procedures. Talk to administrators. If you feel the steps being taken in your child’s school to keep him or her safe aren’t enough, start attending school board meetings and voice your concerns. There is nothing wrong with advocating your child’s safety. The more you know about procedures at your child’s school, the better your discussions with your child will be.
I want to reassure you as well. Most teachers will tell you their students are like their own children. We will do everything in our power to keep your children safe. We are preparing them at school, and we need you to reinforce what we are teaching while also letting them know school is still a safe place to be.