Local mental health professionals stressed parents be truthful and reassuring of their children’s safety when discussing Friday’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
The incident, in which at least 20 children and seven others were reported killed, is the United State’s second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
“It’s always important with children to give them factual information,” Diane Drake, director of the Elizabeth Layton Center for Hope and Guidance in Ottawa, said of the shooting. “It’s always important never to lie to children about what they hear, but to reassure them that their school district practices safeguards to prevent something like this from happening.”
Many details of the Friday morning shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School remained unclear, as Connecticut police wavered on specifics of the investigation, including the suspected gunman’s identity. Police reported, however, that the gunman, whose mother worked at the school, also was found dead Friday, according to media reports.
Regardless of details, children deserve the truth from their parents or guardians regarding the shooting, Renee Crenshaw, counselor at Ottawa’s Eugene Field Elementary School, said.
“It’s always important to be honest with them,” Crenshaw said. “Tell them what you know, and if you don’t know things, tell them that also. Let them ask questions. ... The biggest thing for our children here in Ottawa is to remind them of the things we have in place to keep them safe and that [safety] our top concern.”
Acting as if the shooting never occurred, Drake said, could ultimately harm children.
“The worst thing to do is not address the issue because they will hear about it somehow,” Drake said. “Depending on their level of development, misinformation or inaccurate information actually increases their fears. So, it’s best to be matter-of-fact and reassuring, but not hide the information. Definitely, if there are scenes of the tragedy [on television], do not let children watch. ... It’s part of [news media’s] role to inform the public, but monitoring what scenes are on TV [is important].”
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends that adults and teachers first act as models of calmness and then reassure children that they are safe. In addition, the association suggests parents “let children know that it is OK to feel upset” and explain that their “feelings are OK when a tragedy like this occurs.
“Whenever a national tragedy occurs, such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters, children, like many people, may be confused or frightened,” the association’s website reports. “Most likely they will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and school personnel can help children cope first and foremost by establishing a sense of safety and security.”
In the wake of the shooting, Dean Katt, superintendent of Ottawa schools, said the district’s “awareness is heightened,” adding Friday afternoon that the district had no plans to address the Connecticut shooting with students.
Crenshaw concurred with Katt, adding that parents should still trust in the safety of their children’s school.
“We would encourage parents to have faith in the schools,” Crenshaw said. “We do have things in place to keep your children safe. Obviously, we can’t stop everything, and we hope that we’ll never have to be in the same situation that school is in. We do our best to keep students safe.”
Crenshaw noted several individual teachers spoke to students about the shooting Friday during classes, indicating that some children had questions.
“I know there are a few classrooms that have talked about [the shooting], and it’s mostly the kids wondering, ‘What would we do?’ They want to know what would happen if something like that were to happen here,” Crenshaw said. “If parents call with concerns or questions, we’ll make sure we talk to the students and classes.”
President Obama, a parent of two, issued a statement to media Friday afternoon lamenting the shooting.
“Our hearts are broken,” President Obama said in a statement Friday, according to media reports. “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years, and each time I learn the news, I react not as a president, but as anybody else would, as a parent. And that was especially true today. ... I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.”
The National Parent-Teacher Association released a statement earlier Friday, urging people come together to seek solace.
“National PTA feels enormous sympathy for the students, families and communities affected by the horrendous tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.,” the parent-teacher association said in a release. “Our country has experienced far too many of these tragedies, and we all share in the sense of loss and hurt. ... A traumatic event like that of this morning affects the entire community, especially the families and friends of the victims. This can be an emotional time, and it’s important for people affected by this tragedy to connect with and support each other.”