Answers to Some Scary What-If Questions About School Shootings

Kidpower Response to Virginia Tech Tragedy

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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For many of us, the tragic school shooting at Virginia Tech University brings up heart-breaking reminders of other outbursts of senseless violence, such as happened at Columbine High School in Colorado and at the Ecole Polytechnique College in Montreal.

Once again, an angry loner has destroyed many lives, including his own. Although people around him were worried about his behavior, no one knew what to do.

As I feel sorrow for the young people who lost their lives and for their loved ones, I do my best to remember that we need to focus on what we CAN do – and to accept that nothing works all of the time.

I remind myself that, although their impact is huge, these events are rare and that schools are usually a safe place for young people to be.

Adults need to be calm, to listen to concerns, to answer questions, and to offer support. Remember that how you sound can have a large impact on whether or not a child feels anxious. Remind people to be aware of what a child might overhear or see on the news.

The simple answers tend to be the most effective.

If a young person seems worried, adults can explain that the safest plan is to get away from someone who is acting in a dangerous way and to get to safety. Review what the safety plan is at school and explain that locking someone out can prevent a dangerous person from getting to where students are most of the time.

It helps to have a picture in mind of what you could do, if you are worried about something. If someone starts shooting or has a gun, tell students to run away and get to safety, because someone shooting is likely to miss a moving target most of the time. Both at Virginia Tech and at Columbine, the young people who jumped out of the windows got hurt, but they had a better chance than the young people who stayed in the room.

If someone is talking or writing about hurting other people, animals, or himself, remind young people that they need to find safe adults or people in positions of authority to talk to about their concerns. There are many resources for assessing the risk of someone who might be going from feeling upset and depressed to becoming violent. Instead of ignoring the problem and hoping nothing bad will happen, it is important to insist on getting professional help in order to assess risks and explore options. By working together, people can make a plan to try to stop the isolation of a troubled person, provide a safe outlet for anger and despair, and find safe ways to interrupt any escalation towards violence.

If you are worried about safety for yourself or for someone you love, review what to do if an emergency happens- whether the emergency is a tornado, a flood, a blizzard, an earthquake, a fire, an illness, or a violent person. Being mentally prepared can help people to be aware of potential danger, to know that to do, and to take effective action most of the time.

On a larger level, we need to work together to create a culture where violence is not seen as a solution to problems, where troubled people are not left in isolation, and where women and girls are seen as being equal in value to men, rather than as being acceptable outlets for rage.

Question: What if Nothing Works?

Answer: The reality is that there are no guarantees. You might have to risk getting hurt or even killed in order to give yourself and others the best odds for survival. Instead of freezing, you want to imagine taking  forceful action to stop an attack against yourself and anyone you  feel responsible for protecting. I have met a couple of people who were shot who fought back after being shot and won – and who are still alive and amazingly well.

Question: What are the warning signs of someone who might be dangerous?

Answer: There is no one profile that fits everyone. Someone who seems –obsessed with violence, who makes threats, who talks about hurting himself or others, who seems disconnected from the world around him, who talks as if he has nothing to lose, who is aggressive, and who seems to feel persecuted by others — needs help whether he is a threat to others or not. I am using “he”  because almost all of these kinds of incidents have been done by men or boys.

Question: What should you do if someone’s behavior is making you frightened or worried?

Answer: Find people who are trained in risk assessment and interventions and insist on getting help. If your police department or mental  health department does not know what to do, go up the chain of command. Most federal agencies now have teams who are trained in these skills and schools should have access to these resources as well. Question: What if you realize that someone is shooting people where you are? Answer: Escape if you possibly can. Run away. Jump out the window. Barricade yourself someplace that the person cannot get to. Get help as soon as you can.

Question: What if you are trapped, such as in your office and someone is shooting?

Answer: Don’t just sit there. Make a plan depending on the situation. Hide behind your  desk and come out the other side. Shove the gun and the person aside and run away. Or throw things to distract aim. Remember that even if you get shot, you have a good chance of survival. If you are trapped, do your best to counter-attack, grabbing the gun and aiming it towards the person, or throwing it out of reach. Having the intention of hitting and kicking HARD. As you move in, yell for others to help you.

Question: What if someone is shooting but you are with people you feel responsible for and you feel that you must try to protect them?

Answer: Again, have a plan. Don’t just let your body be a barricade to someone who is shooting. Try to confuse the person shooting by throwing things, yelling, changing direction, hitting the gun aside, grabbing the gun, and/or counter-attacking forcefully. Give orders to the people you are protecting to get away – to RUN to SAFETY.

Question: What should I say to my children?

Answer:: It depends on  how old the children are and what their level of awareness is likely to be. If a child might hear about a tragedy from someone else, give a simple calm explanation so that the child hears from you. For example, “A man in a college had big problems and killed people and then himself. It is very sad, but this almost never happens. We are going to make sure that you are safe.”

If a child worries about what to do if someone starts shooting, say very calmly, “This almost never happens. If there is someone dangerous, most of the time we can keep that person away by locking the door. If we cannot do that, most of the time, you can be safe if you look for a way out and run to safety.”

Try to prevent children from overhearing upsetting information and from seeing constant repetitions from the media. Remind other people that children are likely to become upset by hearing adults sound upset.

Please also see article: Helping Children to Regain Their Emotional Safety After a Tragedy



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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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