Empowering Kids and Parents After a School Shooting

How to Talk to Kids and Protect Children From Mass Shootings: A Parent's Guide

By Susan Jara

It’s a terrifying scenario that has become all too familiar: A gunman walks into a school and starts shooting. Parents rush to the scene and wait in desperation to find out whether their child survived. Some of them do not.

The shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is one of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Since the tragic 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, more than 400 people have been shot at schools, according to the New York Times.

As a parent watching these tragedies unfold over and over again, I felt powerless, frightened, and bewildered as to how to discuss these events with my children—and really, how to keep them safe going forward. Many parent friends say they’re afraid to send their kids through the school doors every day in light of these mass shootings. We wonder: Are the active shooter drills they’re participating in even helping?

“Every day I leave the house, thinking, ‘What if something happens at my school or at my child’s school,’ says Jill Murray, a mom and social worker in a high school near Newtown, Connecticut. “What if this is the last time I see my son?”

So I sought the advice of experts to help guide myself and other parents through this. What can we do to keep them safe, and what can we do to prevent anxiety from taking over?

Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York, who specializes in helping children recover from traumatic stress and anxiety, calls this emotional reasoning: “Sometimes things that scare us can cause us to overestimate the likelihood that something bad will happen; we presume our anxiety means there is imminent danger,” she says.

In order to take back control, Howard recommends starting by opening up regular communication with your children and active participation in school events and parent committees.

Empower Parents and Kids

“[Lobby for] proactive efforts, not reactive,” says Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm in Cleveland.“Parents must make it clear to school boards, superintendents, and principals that they have expectations for security and emergency preparedness and crisis communications planning.”

Engage the kids, too. Teach the difference between tattling and telling. The 2002 United States Secret Service “Safe School Initiative,” a study of school shootings and other school-based attacks conducted with the U.S. Department of Education, showed that other kids knew, but didn’t notify an adult, prior to most shootings.

Talk to your children about having the courage to speak up—to a teacher, guidance counselor, social worker or other school authority figure—if they hear something or notice strange behavior. Empower them.

“A missing component to school safety is getting the students involved,” says Scott Poland, a nationally recognized expert on school crisis and youth violence and professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He suggests that schools organize student safety committees in which kids take safety pledges that require them to report any suspicious activity or chatter.

“Kids...know where most of the bullying and harassment is going on, and they know the areas of the school where they don’t feel safe,” he says. “Let’s get them involved when determining where we need to increase our supervision and what else we need to do for bullying prevention.”

Teachers and parents can make sure all kids are taking the lockdown drills seriously and absorbing these potentially lifesaving lessons.

“The most important thing is for all kids to be trained to do whatever the teacher tells them to do—whether that’s hide under the desk, get away from the window, get out of the hall. No questions asked,” Poland says.

Support Your Neighbor, and Mental Health Services

Emphasize empathy. This means teaching your kids to notice how others are feeling and how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

“A lot of kids who are committing these acts are isolated and don’t have friends,” says Murray, who has a quote in her office that reads: “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind always.”

While there’s no profile for school shooters, there are clear indications of severe mental health problems, explains Poland, who has provided direct on-site services in the aftermath of 13 school shootings. Reducing the stigma of mental healthcare is another action item for those who might feel otherwise powerless in the face of such shocking violence, say these experts.

“These aren't personality characteristics; they're symptoms of serious disorders that need treatment,” Howard says. “By communicating an openness and appreciation for psychiatric treatment, you're making it easier for other parents to freely obtain the care they need for their own children.”

Trump agrees: “It's easy to point to more cameras or additional police at a school—neither of which on their own are bad things—but it's harder to point to adults building relationships with kids and improving counseling and mental health support.”

Take Charge of Technology

“Though teens can look and talk a lot like adults, they're not. They're more impulsive, their social world is everything to them, and they don't fully appreciate the consequences of their actions,” says Howard.

Although it might be hard to keep a full accounting of what kids are up to online, it’s always worth asking questions and monitoring social media as closely as possible for any red flags.

Do You Keep a Gun?

Ask this before your child’s playdate: “Is there a loaded gun in the house?”

It's a question that a lot of parents are reluctant to ask, but experts agree is vital in today’s world—and you have a right to ask it. No, this isn't a school shooting situation, but a study published in 2017 in the journal Pediatrics, found that gun-related deaths are the third most common killer for children, ahead of the flu, heart disease, and other serious conditions. The number of American homes with at least one gun in them is not exact and fluctuates from one survey to the next. A recent Pew study found that 42 percent of Americans live in a home with a gun, while another by the General Social Survey put the figure at 32 percent.

While there’s no foolproof way to keep our kids safe, these tactics should help. Tonight I’ll be holding my kids tight and thinking of those parents who lost a child. I may not always be able to keep them safe, but I can love them—every minute of every day.

(If you're looking for resources to find a legislative path to gun control, we've rounded up those organizations here.)

Photos via Bigstock