Talking to children about school violence

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Communication and reassurance are key between parents and their children when talking about high profile acts of violence like the multiple stabbings Wednesday at Franklin Regional High School in Westmoreland County.

“Each age group processes it differently,” said Joe Mahoney, therapeutic coordinator for Intermediate Unit 1. “The best thing a parent can do is let them talk, let them share their concerns.”

While violence can occur anywhere at any time, Mahoney suggested a parent’s explanation be developmentally appropriate.

Elementary students tend to process through play, said Mahoney, keeping in mind they may also ask a lot of questions.

In junior and senior high, Mahoney said, children are more vocal, but some may or may not want to talk.

“It’s best to leave the door open and let them know you’re available,” said Mahoney. “Most students at that age, especially boys, aren’t going to approach parents or an adult about their anxieties.”

Mahoney added that it’s also important for parents to emphasize their child’s school has safety precautions in place and that they should be aware of its safety plan.

For the most part, Mahoney said, children will guide their parents on what they need to talk about and how they talk about it.

“As parents and adults, we don’t want to act like it didn’t happen,” said Mahoney.

“It’s a fine line. You don’t want to scare them anymore, but you also don’t want to downplay what they’re feeling,” said Mahoney.

Chesnut Ridge Counseling Center of Uniontown has reached out to Franklin school officials to help those affected cope with the tragedy.

“This tragedy has so many arms that affect students, staff and support resources around the school,” said Barbara Peck, an outpatient specialist at Chestnut Ridge. “You have the greater community looking in. Everyone is stunned because they don’t think it can happen to them, until it does. It’s a situation that we’ve seen increase across the country — the horror for communities.”

Peck said for the students directly involved, their perception of the school will never be the same. Compared to the safe environment that students had long been accustomed too, the invasion spawns emotions that are seared into memories.

“For students, it’s overwhelming, because it’s fear, terror, people had to be screaming,” Peck said. “If on scene, it had to be bloody. Certainly, administrators were able to head off further violence, but there was still a lot of violence. And now the kids are going to look at the school in a totally different way.”

Peck said some kids may be so shocked that they can’t talk about it.

“That would change as time goes on, but this will be something that they can never forget,” she said.

Peck said the tragedy can scar people for time to come because they process the events in different ways.

“People that were close to victims or people on scene who saw it happen or those who did not know what to do or were just being just scared — these sights, sounds and smells may linger a lifetime,” she said.

Peck said after tragic events like this, the community needs to unite.

“It’s times like this that the community has to come together, to not let this fade from the perspective and discuss how do we build more safety,” she said. “I don’t know if we always have the exact answers, but we need to improve education and awareness so that these things become more and more rare.”

State police advise school districts on safety protocols needed to protect students, faculty and staff during school-related tragedies.

Trooper Stefani Plume said police meet with the school districts and provide suggestions about security and evacuation, depending on the specific buildings within the district. Plume said the individual school districts themselves create their own protocol based on their school makeup and facility locations, because each is different.

“We do assist them with the planning process for these responses, but, ultimately, it is up to the district,” she said. “I can’t really give general recommendations to students that might possibly go against what their specific district would want them to be taught.”

However, Plume said, it is the school district’s responsibility to formulate its own procedures to deal with threats.

“It is the responsibility of each individual school district to come up with their own emergency response policy,” she said. “I cannot speak for each individual district on what their policies are, how they train/instruct their staff. We, the state police, do not typically give blanket advice to districts on that emergency response policy, since each individual district/school is different.”