4 Tips for Discussing School Violence With Your Kids

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On the morning of Wednesday, February 22, 2017, my cell phone rang at 5:30 a.m. The caller ID told me that the call was from our school district. Even before I swiped to answer, the pop-up notification on my phone told me the nature of the call. School had been canceled for the day. That’s not such an odd occurrence in February in southwest Missouri. Snow and ice have canceled school as late in the year as early May. However, we’d been enjoying a stretch of record high temperatures, and while I wasn’t really awake enough for my rational mind to rule that out, I knew something was off.

There has been a lot of construction to and around a few of the school buildings in our district. In December 2016, I happened to be privy to a conversation regarding low water pressure at one of the schools due to a water main issue at a construction site near that particular school. So, non-functioning utilities was certainly a possibility for canceling school that zipped through my not-yet-awake mind.

I was not prepared for what the recorded voice of our district superintendent told me. School had been canceled because of the threat of violence.

I graduated from high school in the spring of 1996. On occasion, we would have to go outside and stand in a field across from the school due to somebody calling in a bomb threat. Three years after I graduated, two students shot up their high school in Littleton, Colorado. Since then, stories of campus shootings have scrolled across the bottom of cable news networks to the point that many of us can’t even be surprised when another is reported. Regardless of where you find yourself on the political spectrum or on which side you stand in the gun control discussion, most will agree that these types of attacks have become all too frequent while we have become all too accustomed to them.

At the time that I am writing this piece for GeekDad, the facts of the incident have not been fully revealed to the public. Because this is an ongoing investigation involving a minor, it is likely that we won’t know all of the pertinent details for a long time, if ever. Based on what has been released, here is what I am confident in typing:

On the evening of Tuesday, February 21, 2017, the following message was posted to an Instagram account associated with a student in the school district:

“This message is going out to 87 freshmen. If you get one of these, I highly suggest you do not attend school tomorrow at any time, you have been good to me and this warning is my thank you.”

At around 9:15 p.m., the first 911 call regarding the social media post was received by the county 911 call center. School district administrators, school resource officers, the city police department, and county sheriff’s office went into action, spending the overnight hours securing the school district facilities and locating and questioning the source of the post. Rather than hold regularly scheduled classes on Wednesday, the district administrators decided to err on the side of caution and give local authorities time to complete their safety checks and continue with their investigation.

Though the message was unspecific–one could infer that because it was addressed to freshmen that it pertained to the high school–it was treated seriously by those involved. The response from parents and employees of the district has been overwhelmingly positive toward district administration for putting safety first and canceling classes for the day.

In an age where Active Shooter drills are included with the traditional fire and tornado safety drills, it also provides us with the opportunity to talk to our children about school safety. Every child is different and each will react differently to news such as this, yet there are a few basic tips and talking points that parents can engage in with their children to help them understand and hopefully make sense of what is going on.

  1. Your children are looking at how you handle this. This one sounds basic, but it deserves to be said. If you are anxious and fearful, there’s a good chance that your child will be anxious and fearful as well. Why? Because they are mimicking what they see their adult parents do. As much as you may be a mess on the inside, it is important to retain a sense of outward clarity and confidence. Yes, you can acknowledge that you are concerned, but demonstrate that you are cautious for caution’s sake and not out of fear.
  2. Reassure them that people are working to keep them and their school a safe place. Why was school canceled? Because there was a greater chance today that someone would get sick or injured on the way to, while at, or on the way home from school today. Sometimes inclement weather is the issue. Sometimes widespread illness causes schools to cancel. Sometimes it’s due to a boil order or other non-functioning utilities. In this case, it was a threat made against the safety of the district. The fact that school was canceled is not a cause for alarm that something is wrong, but a reinforcement that everything is being done right to keep the students, the staff, and the faculty safe and healthy. School will remain canceled until district officials are confident that the threat to health and safety has passed.
  3. Don’t duck the conversation. I know of a few parents who have said that they are not having a talk with their children about school violence. My question is this… do you really think that your child isn’t going to hear about this at school? On the bus? At recess? At lunchtime? In the hallways? In the bathrooms? It is better to give your child a baseline understanding of the facts, tailored to their maturity level, as you want them framed before they get to school and get bombarded with all sorts of rumor and innuendo. Let your kids ask questions and voice their feelings about the issue now, in a safe place with you, and encourage them to ask you questions about what they hear others saying once they return to school.
  4. Explain to them the importance of words. An overwhelming amount of evidence shows that campus shooters since the incident at Columbine High School have considered themselves outsiders and have been subjected to varying amounts of verbal, emotional, and sometimes physical abuse. Talk to your children about the impact their words have on others. How would you feel if someone had said that to you? How does it make you feel when you see someone saying these things to other people? What can you do or say if you find yourself witnessing or experiencing something like this? Talk to them about the impact these words posted to social media are likely to have for the person who posted them. The words we choose have repercussions not just on others but also for ourselves. Remind them that if they ever hear words or witness something that upsets or unnerves them, regardless of whether it is by another student, a teacher, a bus driver, a neighbor, or a family member, that the best thing that they can do is tell a caring, responsible adult.

I know that at times it feels like this world has gotten more unfair and unsafe, particularly for the youngest and most innocent among us. We want to wrap them in a big hug and not let them go outside the house sometimes, but that’s not good for their emotional and intellectual growth, either. The best way to handle any potentially threatening or upsetting situation is by remaining calm and in control while having an honest discussion about the situation–whatever it may be–and how your family will conduct itself in trying times. Your children are listening and watching, so tell them and show them by your example how they are expected to respond.

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