As school officials across the country weighed what to do in response to Friday’s massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, one Woodstock official said she just wanted to run home and hug her daughter.
The response of area school districts was fairly consistent, but Northwest Herald readers responding to the story on Facebook were divided. They differed on whether schools should address the complicated – and sometimes unanswerable – questions that students will have or leave that up to parents.
Districts 200, 158 and 155 did not formally inform their students of the shootings.
Both Woodstock District 200 and Huntley District 158 have students ranging from pre-kindergartners through 12th-graders. District 155 has only high school students.
“The news that we’ve been getting has been sketchy all day long,” said Terry Awrey, associate superintendent of D-158. “We’ve been getting bits and pieces, and we don’t have a full story to tell our kids.”
On Monday, though, they’ll be ready to handle questions students have and direct them to counselors if needed. District 158 has a faculty meeting planned for before school Monday to answer questions the staff has.
Schools can use the tragedy as an opportunity to teach children about empathy by having a moment of silence or doing something to help the children at the school, said Vicki Santos, a clinical psychologist with Crystal Lake-based Creative Psychology.
In the meantime, parents will have to decide what to say,
Some parents might not want to talk about it, but not talking about it is probably the wrong way to go, Santos said.
She recommended answering kids’ questions honestly, even if that means saying, “I don’t know” or “I wish I understood this,” and using language they’ll understand. Parents should watch for signs of anxiety, including problems sleeping, hypervigilance and problems focusing, she said.
“The main things, as adults, we need to try to reassure our children that they’re safe,” Santos said. “Unfortunately, we can never 100 percent guarantee, but we can reassure them that we’re going to do our best to make sure that they have a safe home, a safe school and a safe community to live in.”
In an email sent to all parents and staff members, Carpentersville-based District 300’s superintendent, Michael Bregy, pointed parents to the National Association of School Psychologists, which has tips for talking to children about violence.
He also listed ways the district has been proactive.
Being proactive was the biggest commonality among districts in their response.
“[Parents] want to know, Are we proactive? Do we have a protocol? Do we have lockdown procedures? Do we have emergency procedures? And we do,” said Awrey, whose District 158 has schools in Huntley, Lake in the Hills and Algonquin.
District 200, based in Woodstock, also fielded calls from worried parents, said Carol Smith, director of community services. The administration sent emails advising principals on how to handle parent phone calls and giving them talking points.
“District 200 takes the safety and security of our students and staff members very seriously,” the email said.
All visitors to school buildings must be buzzed in and each school has a comprehensive crisis plan that has been reviewed by security specialists and local police and fire departments, it said.
District 300 is one of the few districts in the state to employ a full-time security expert, Bregy said in an email to families.
The district was one of four in the area to have had one or more schools to go into a lockdown this year. A potentially threatening text message prompted a lockdown at Dundee-Crown High School and Perry Elementary School in March.
The superintendent at Harvard’s District 50, Lauri Tobias, also sent a letter to families, asking that they make sure their contact information with the district is up-to-date and that they remind their children about the need to follow directions in the event of an emergency.
Crystal Lake-based District 155 had one of its regularly scheduled lockdown drills planned for Tuesday at Crystal Lake South High School, said Jeff Puma, its director of communications. As of Friday afternoon, administration hadn’t decided whether to go ahead with it.
Tips for talking with children about school shootings
The American Psychological Association offers the following tips for parents to talk to their children about the school shooting in Connecticut.
• Talk to your children: Use the news as an opportunity to talk and listen to your child. Psychologists recommend being honest. Parents should acknowledge that bad things happen, but reassure children that many people work to keep them safe.
• Young children may communicate fears through play or drawings. Elementary schoolchildren will use a combination of play and talking to express themselves. Adolescents are more likely to have the skills to communicate their feelings and fears verbally. Adults should be attentive to a child's concerns and try to help the children put their fears into proportion to the real risk.
• Limit exposure to news coverage: Parents should monitor exposure to news reports of traumatic events. Research has shown that some young children believe the events are reoccurring each time they see a replay of events.
• Know the warning signs: Parents should be alert to signs of anxiety that might suggest that a child or teenager needs more assistance. Indicators could be a change in a child's school performance, changes in relationships with peers and teachers, excessive worry, refusal to go to school refusal, sleeplessness, nightmares, headaches or stomachaches, or loss of interest in activities the child used to enjoy.
• Remember: Every child will respond to trauma differently. Some will have no ill effects; others may suffer an immediate and acute effect. Still others may not show signs of stress until later.