Threats to school safety are an increasingly common fear. Many parents have expressed concerns on how to respond to lock-downs, threats, and reports of violence at their child’s school. Given the high number of reports of school violence in the last number of years, as well as the 24-hour news coverage of these events, people are understandably worried when they hear about potential risks to school safety.
For example, it is Monday night, and you get the call from the school district that a threat to school safety was identified and managed. The district reports that a student was threatened to bring a gun to your child’s school. Your heart beats as you read the information, and your palms sweat. The school assures you that the event was reported and managed by law enforcement. Even though they assure you that your child is safe, you are still worried. “What if they made a mistake?” you wonder. Your teen, who also got the memo, also appears worried. How do you help them back to school the next day?
In another situation, you find out that there were dogs at your child’s school today, practicing for a drug search. The school lets you know, but you also wonder if your child is safe. Your child returns home with questions about drugs and bombs. What do you say?
During your workday, you find out that your child’s classroom is on lockdown. Apparently, there was an armed robbery down the street from your child’s school. So, the school, carefully following safety protocols, engaged in lockdown procedures in your child’s class. Your child reports that some of the children in his class were crying, scared, and upset. He tells you that he doesn’t want to go back to school.
School safety concerns are becoming more and more common.
In fact, all three of the above situations were based on true events in Iowa during the last school year. As parents and caregivers, when we hear of these situations, we can become more sensitized. We may fear for our kids whenever they leave us. Students may also fear going to school or leaving their parents. Research finds that children, teachers, and parents are likely to have increased anxiety and fear surrounding school safety the more real (or even indirect) exposure to safety threats occur. “Sometimes, I feel like I go to school at a jail,” remarked a child friend of our family recently when they learned the police would be at their school for a day.
Many of us wonder how to keep our children safe.
Over the years, I’ve heard parents mentioning private schools, home-schooling, and “never letting the kids out of the house again” from friends, relatives, and strangers. The thought that our children aren’t safe at school or activities can be terrifying.
Approximately 13 years ago, I lived and worked in a community in Minnesota in which a school shooting occurred. It was traumatizing for the victims, their families, the providers with whom I worked, students, teachers, the community at large, and me. When my oldest son left the house last week after a school violence notification, I found it very hard to control the lump in my throat. “Be safe,” I muttered to myself as he left the house. When my son left the door, I remembered that he was the same age as the victims of that tragedy, which made it much harder for me to stay calm and let him go to school that day.
There are some things that you can do to help you and your child feel better.
Talk to your child.
Find out what your child knows. Talk about the violence, lock-down, or scary event. If you don’t talk about it, it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible even to speak about or that you do not know what has happened. Research on anxious thoughts tells us that without the correct information, children often fill in the gaps with something even worse.
With social media and texting, your child probably heard a version of the event from classmates. As we all know, information from friends is may be very different from the reality. If that is the case, you will need to gently and accurately correct any misinformation. Sometimes, taking your child for a drive or a walk can help to get them to open up. The change of scenery and the lack of direct eye contact is often less pressured. It can work wonders in terms of increasing conversation with a tactiturn teen.
Allow your child to ask you questions.
For example, she may ask if it is possible that it will happen again, whether other schools are at risk, or if you or her siblings are safe. Be aware, that by asking these questions, she is also asking if she is safe. Having question-and-answer talks gives your child ongoing support for a variety of fears.
Review plans that your family has for keeping safe in the event of any crisis situation.
Talk about how you handle safety threats at home. For example, in the case of a fire, you “get low and go,” leaving the house for a previously agreed upon place. You can ask your child what the teachers have practiced with them in the case of violence at school. You may even draw some analogies about fire safety and school shooting survival skills. If they don’t have a plan, it is always ok to ask a trusted teacher, counselor, or principal so you can formulate a plan together. If you feel that your teen is not adequately prepared, these are conversations for you and your child/teen to have with your school administrators.
Be a healthy role model.
Consider sharing your feelings about the events with your child/teen, but at a level they can understand. You may share your own worry. But, it is important to also share some things that worked well in the situation. You can remind your child of the quick response by teachers, principals, or law enforcement. You can remind your child that no one was hurt (if that was the case) because of the careful responses of these people.
If people were harmed, you can express gratitude for the school personnel, medical personnel, or law enforcement agents that did their job well. It will be important to stay calm and centered. When parents worry, so do their children. Take the same advice that you are giving your child. Remember, we can’t expect our children to do better at coping that we are. If you are worried, it is always ok to call your child’s school and get more information about how they are responding to the incident or threat.
Don’t let your child/teen avoid school.
Under these circumstances, it is better to return to school and get back into the routine than to avoid things. The longer we avoid feared situations, the more the fear grows. As a result, it takes longer and longer to return to normal.
Offer to attend a therapy session with your child.
In times of stress, children/teens may have trouble with their behavior, concentration, and attention. While they may not openly ask for support, they may need it. Adolescents who are seeking increased independence may have difficulty expressing their needs. It is ok to talk out concerns or fears with someone trained in managing trauma.
Talk to your child about things they can do to help.
For example, encourage your child to tell you about any threats of violence that they encounter in person or through social media. These incidents are always very important to report, even if they think the threat is not likely.
Likewise, if anyone ever reports suicide or self-harm, these events are also very important to let someone know. Suicidal threats mean that someone needs help.
Finally, encourage your child to be a helpful bystander. If someone is being bullied, threatened, or intimidated, it will be very useful to step up and assist, or find a trustworthy adult.
We are all in this together, and only by joining together, and helping one another, will we be safe.