Once again, a tragic school shooting has left a wake of suffering and heartbreak. The horrifying reality is that, since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, a gun has been fired on school grounds nearly once a week in the United States. The following article was first written after the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999; yet, what adults and kids need to know is still very much the same.
The threat of violence looms over all children no matter where they live or what their family situation is – and is ever-present in the media. We need to keep our perspective and make rational plans rather than react out of anger and panic. The challenge is to find the right balance between security and living our lives. For example, the most dangerous thing we let our children do is to ride in a car. Even though cars are much safer thanks to seat belts, air bags, car seats, and greater awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, terrible accidents can still happen. Yet despite the risks, most of us still drive cars.
The reality is that life is not risk free. Our job as caring adults is to prepare for potential dangers as best we can, live our lives as joyfully as possible, take action to address the social problems that lead to school shootings and other violence as well as we can, and teach our children to do the same!
Although nothing works all of the time, the following 7 suggestions can help adults and children to feel less helpless and more prepared in the face of armed violence in schools.
- Is Your School Prepared – and Are You?
- Be a Safe, Calm Person to Talk To
- Make Sure it is Safe to Tell At School
- What Adults Can Say to Children About What Happens to People’s Minds and Bodies in an Emergency
- Violence in Schools and Elsewhere: What Adults Can Say To Children About Getting Away, Getting Hurt, and Getting Help
- What Adults Can Say to Children About Kids Having Weapons At School
- Work on the Underlying Issues
1. Is Your School Prepared – and Are You?
Make sure that your school, family, workplace, and organization has a plan of action for how to handle all kinds of potential emergencies including urgent health problems, natural disasters, aggression, and violence. The keys to preparation are:
- assessing potential risks of the kinds of problems that might endanger young people realistically and thoroughly;
- making changes to minimize those risks when possible;
- having plans in place for how emergencies will be handled; and
- practicing with all school staff how to assess the situation and take immediate effective action when confronted with different kinds of emergencies. This can include training in recognizing danger, getting help immediately, first aid, crisis intervention, self-defense, emergency evacuations, and sheltering in place.
What people decide to do in the first few seconds of an attack or other emergencies can make a tremendous difference to the outcome. Being prepared with a plan of action and the skills to assess the best choice in the moment and take action quickly will help to empower adults to take leadership when they need to not only for the relatively rare tragedies like school shootings, but for all kinds of emergencies.
When schools have an emergency active shooter plan that teachers and students have practiced, encourage children to do what their teacher says and follow the plan as best they can, as long as they are staying away from the shooter. Role playing what to do is a powerful training tool to help adults and kids alike understand and plan how to respond to dangerous situations.
2. Be a Safe, Calm Person to Talk To
Children of any age need to know that adults are willing to listen to their fears, and treat them with respect when they talk about their problems. You need to find a balance between listening and supporting without burdening children with your own fears.
It might be tempting to try to make children feel better in the moment by just telling them that the situation is not really that bad, because school shootings are still a relatively rare event. It can also be hard not to overreact and sound panic-stricken yourself. If their adults are overwhelmed and afraid, kids are likely to become even more scared and anxious. The subject of violence in schools is upsetting for most adults, so be sure to get support for your own feelings from other adults if you need it.
If you act like something is too terrifying even to talk about, this will make children more afraid. They might want to protect you by not sharing their fears and this can leave them feeling really alone.
Children need adults to listen and explain what is happening and what they should do as calmly and matter-of-factly as possible. Tell children to tell you if anyone is making them uncomfortable about anything. Having children in the habit of talking to you will help you to judge whether or not a situation is potentially dangerous.
Too often, after a tragic shooting, people will say that there were warning signs that had been overlooked, even if they were reported. If someone is posting violent messages on social media, take this seriously and do your best to get school authorities and law enforcement officials to take action in a way that does not put you or your child at risk by revealing your identity.
3. Make Sure it is Safe to Tell at School
It is your job as an adult to take charge of the environments in which your children spend time as best you can. Make sure that your school has a plan for dealing with school shootings and other violence just like any other emergency. Make sure that adults are trained in how to deal with a child who makes a report about another child, because violence in schools can escalate if problems are not managed in a way that protects students who make reports.
One girl who was in a very exclusive school in a quiet neighborhood heard a boy bragging about his gun. When she told the principal, the gun was found and the boy was suspended. However, the principal handled the situation in a way that caused the girl to be identified and then he put her back into the classroom. The boy’s friends threatened to kill her. The trauma she went through could have been prevented if the school officials had understood how important is to protect the identity of children who tell in order to prevent violence in schools.
If children don’t feel safe with any adult at school, it is important that they tell their parents or another trusted adult as soon as they can. The school needs to know if there is possible danger. In some situations it may be necessary to make a telephone call to the school anonymously–which means not telling your name–to someone in charge, like the principal. Anonymous telephone calls or notes will only be taken seriously if there are as many specifics as possible included in the message.
4. What Adults Can Say to Children About What Happens to People’s Minds and Bodies in an Emergency
You can tell children, “Any time you have an emergency –like a car wreck, an earthquake, a flood, a tornado, or somebody being dangerous– your first feeling will most likely be disbelief. You will probably think, ‘It’s not true. It is impossible! This can’t be!’ The sooner you can get over your disbelief and see what is actually happening, the sooner you can start to protect yourself.”
“Next, you will probably experience some very strong feelings because of a chemical in your body called adrenaline. Adrenaline can make you feel full of energy, or it can make you feel shaky, weak or sick to your stomach. Sometimes all of these feelings come at the same time, which can be a bit confusing. Your body might go into a panic and want to run or freeze or start fighting, whether it makes sense or not. The good news is that you can learn to use the energy from your adrenaline to give you lots of power while still thinking clearly so you can make the safest choices for yourself. If you practice the safest way to handle different emergencies, you will be able to act quickly because your body will already know what to do.”
Using role plays to rehearse handling different emergencies, including potential violence in schools, can prepare children to react effectively and quickly — and to have their adrenaline work for them instead of against them.
5. Violence in Schools and Elsewhere: What Adults Can Say to Children About Getting Away, Getting Hurt, and Getting Help
Sometimes we have children as young as six ask us in the middle of a Kidpower workshop, “What if someone comes to our school and starts shooting everybody?” Along with all of the other adults in the room, we look into their little faces and feel ill that they even have to wonder about it.
When children ask what to do is something terrible happens, it is important to give them simple and clear answers. It is less upsetting to imagine a plan than to keep imagining being helpless.
Depending on a child’s level of understanding, we can say, “The news makes it seem as if scary things like this are happening all the time. But this isn’t true. Most of us will live long happy lives and never have to worry about somebody starting to shoot people at school. If something bad happens at school, follow the directions that your teacher gives you. It might be to hide quietly in your room. If someone starts waving a gun or a knife or starts shooting and you don’t know what to do, your safest choice is almost always is to get away right away as quickly and quietly as you can. You will almost always be safer if you keep running away even if the person with the gun tells you to stop. Even if the person is saying they will hurt someone else if you run, the best chance you have for helping that person is to run away and get help.” This is useful advice for violence in general, not just violence in schools.
It is important for children to have a safety plan for how to get out of a building in case of danger – whether the danger comes from a fire or a person. You can say, “Your job is to get out of the building as far from the danger as possible. So let’s think about everywhere you might be and how you might get out if you need to. You can go out the door or, if you have to, jump out of the window. If you cannot get out and the danger is from a fire, look for a place near a window, away from the fire and yell for help. If the danger is from a person and you cannot get out, look for a place to hide that covers up all of you.” Then, rehearse leaving and/or hiding with the children.
You can tell children, “You might need to get hurt in order to get away. If a gun shoots, it will be loud. The great thing about adrenaline is that it can help you to run fast, even if you are hurt or start to bleed. If you are hurt by a gun, you can get better most of the time, just like you get better most of the time when you fall down and get hurt and bloody.”
Tell children, “Once you get out, as soon as you safely can, find an adult you trust to go to for help. Now, let’s think about different places you might be and where you could go to get help after you got out.” Take the time to brainstorm ideas about getting out and getting help with the children. Teach children how to call 911; their full name, address, and telephone number; and how to use different types of telephones.
6. What Adults Can Say to Children About Kids Having Weapons At School
You can tell children that, “Sometimes kids like to joke or brag about having or using guns or bombs or about hurting animals or people. Most of the time, they are just pretending, but once in a while, they are not. If someone is talking like this or is showing you a weapon, this person might have big problems and I want you to leave safely and then tell me about it as soon as you can.”
Young people need to know how to get away from anyone who makes them uncomfortable without saying what they think, This might mean that they have to lie to stay safe and say, “Of course I won’t tell.” or even, “Yes, I think that’s cool.” They might have to agree with the person who is being weird or scary, even with a big insult like saying, “Yes, you’re right, my mom is a creep (or worse).”
It is urgent that, if someone is acting in a way that could be dangerous, children go to an adult they trust and say something like, “This is about my safety and about the safety of others here at our school. I need you to promise to protect me from other people knowing that I am the one who is telling you this. I want you to call my parents (or another safe adult) right away so they can be with me.”
7. Work on the Underlying Issues
As caring adults, we all need to work together to take social action that can help to prevent this kind of violence in the future. Addressing the larger social issues that can lead to mass shootings is going to take time. In the meantime, the number of shootings is increasing, and we must find ways to make our schools safer and communities safer. Each of us needs to find our own ways of helping to address the underlying issues that lead to violence in schools and in our communities. Important actions can include:
- Establishing school policies that make threats, harassment, and violence in schools against the rules with clearly defined consequences.
- Ensuring that mental health services are available to everyone who needs them, especially young people and families that are struggling.
- Providing education and policies to stop prejudice, bullying, harassment, and any other form of violence in schools.
- Mentoring a troubled child.
- Monitoring and being aware of the ways in which the entertainment industry normalizes violence for our children.
- Providing media education so that young people learn that it is not cool or manly to be violent.
- Educating school personnel, law enforcement officials, and parents about warning signals that can precede violence in schools.
- Helping young people learn conflict resolution, self-protection, boundary-setting, and confidence skills through organizing and supporting programs such as Kidpower.
Violence in schools can indeed feel like an overwhelming problem. However, by taking steps both to reduce the potential of violence and also to help children develop safety plans and habits, we can keep our kids safe most of the time.
We urge you to share the following articles with any adults with children in their lives who may have worries and questions.
- Helping Children Regain Their Emotional Safety After a Tragedy
- Tragic Shootings: Kidpower Answers to Common Questions About How To Be Safe
- Tiroteos en las Escuelas: Cómo ayudar a los niños frente a la violencia armada en la escuela
- Violence Against Children in the News: Teaching safety Instead of Promoting Fear
- Advice to Parents After Newtown Tragedy
Published: October 13, 2006 | Last Updated: February 15, 2018