Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series examining school safety and students’ emotional wellness in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.
Images of school shootings like the recent one in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead are harder than ever for children to avoid. From high-schoolers on down to elementary-school students, there are myriad ways for kids to be exposed to traumatic pictures and footage — cable news networks, streaming video and social media are all instant windows into the carnage.
So how should parents and school staff approach discussing these ever-more-frequent violent incidents?
Talking to children about school shootings isn’t easy, but Dr. Lori Liguori, the school psychologist at Pawcatuck Middle School, said keeping the conversation age-appropriate is one key to helping kids feel safe.
“For parents and adults in children’s lives, we need to always reassure them they are safe,” Liguori said Friday. “Make time to talk to kids (and) let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. That’s really important in terms of not over-sharing information; answer their questions to the child’s satisfaction.”
She said upper-elementary and middle school students will be more vocal than younger elementary students about asking questions such as whether or not they’re really safe and what’s being done at school to keep them safe.
Liguori said it was also important to watch for non-verbal clues that kids want to talk, especially changes in behavior.
“Are they hovering around while you’re doing things and not necessarily saying anything?” she said. “If you’re really vigilant, you can pick up those clues from kids.”
She said adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations they’re having with each other in front of children, because kids are always listening.
“We want to protect our kids, even high school kids, from exposure to the kind of hateful or angry comments that might be misunderstood by kids,” she said.
She said she hasn’t heard many questions from children or parents since the Parkland shooting.
“My hope is that parents have spoken with the kids at home when they’ve been watching the news or what not and that parents have actually done a nice job of talking with their kids, because we’re not getting any increased level of anxiety that I see,” she said.
Stonington’s small school sizes together with a staff of psychologists and social workers have created a network of mental-health supports for the district’s students.
“We’re lucky that we have small populations in our buildings and we know the children well, so we know which kids need that support,” she said.
Because the schools are small, the staff knows 99 percent of the adults who come into the buildings, which creates a safer atmosphere, she said.
“I think as adults we need to make sure that we let kids know that schools are safe places and what we’re doing to keep them safe,” she said.
She said kids should also be encouraged to reach out to an adult if something makes them uncomfortable or worried.
“We need to let kids know if they’re ever feeling uncomfortable, nervous or frightened, they need to talk to adults,” she said.
Parents are encouraged to contact their school’s mental health team with concerns and questions, Liguori said.
Westerly High School psychologist Scott Simone said there hasn’t been an increase locally in the number of students seeking counseling in the wake of the Parkland incident.
“I haven’t seen a notable number of students who are anxious, distraught or who have had significantly different attitudes toward school safety since then,” Simone said.
But, he said, there’s obvious heightened concern and much more passionate discussion about school safety, gun control and legislative action.
“That’s the nature of an event like this. It generates enormous public discussion,” he said.
The response has included a much-discusssed letter to the editor in The Sun from a high school student and a planned walkout to drive home concerns about safety.
What the community doesn’t see, however, is much of the behind-the-scenes work psychologists and educators do, a lot of which has to do with student confidentiality.
“Against the backdrop of what other schools are doing in the state, we as a school department have a lot to be proud of,” Simone said.
Those unseen successes are difficult to quantify.
“We’re at a disadvantageous position in that regard,” Simone added.
Rather than an uptick in the number of kids needing counseling, there’s been a rise in the instances of conversation about the Parkland shooting that has been noticeable to Simone and others, he said.
“We do pretty complex analysis of kids with mental-health issues here. We have a lot of partnerships in the community,” Simone said. “Our campus in general is very safe. We generally from year to year don’t have a lot of volatility in our student population that’s rooted in mental illness or confrontational behavior with other kids.”
At Westerly High, students have access to four guidance counselors, three social workers, a psychologist and others. The support network is wide.
“I talk to psychologists from other towns. And we have pretty routine conversations in the district among psychologists and social workers,” Simone said.
Students at Westerly High School also have been vigilant and more diligent about reporting suspicious conditions or activities.
“They’re doing an excellent job with cautious reporting of things they think adults should be aware of,” Simone said.
As for risky behavior, the school psychologist said he hasn’t seen an increase.
“Kids doing things we wish kids wouldn’t do,” he said. “Teenagers are consistently teenagers, and when we get hyper-alert like we are now, more stuff hits the radar.”
Chariho psychologist Dr. Lisa Smith splits her time between Hope Valley and Richmond elementary schools. She said she has not noticed any increased anxiety among the students or staff at either school following the Parkland shooting.
Smith added that she had been away attending a conference when the shootings happened and then school was closed for Presidents Week.
“No child has said anything to me, and of course we had vacation, and no child since has said anything to me,” she said. “No teacher has come to me and say ‘the kids are upset.’
“It could be because, maybe, hopefully, I’m at the elementary level, but I have not had anything down here, not that there hasn’t been, but nothing that has been brought to my attention.”
Smith said she believed the security at the schools where she works is robust.
“At Richmond, they have the two doors now at the entryway, they have to be buzzed in, they have the TV monitors,” she said. “I’ve been here 20 years. That didn’t exist. Every year, it seems like it’s getting more and more.
“No one’s come to me and said they don’t feel safe. I’m not getting that from students. I know we practice drills, and that can be a little scary for kids. We talk about practicing them because, you know, in case something happens, we need to be prepared.”