Electronic warning signs with “See Something, Say Something” and “Report Suspicious Behavior” are becoming as common on school grounds as football fields and yellow buses. With school shootings in sleepy towns like Newtown, Connecticut; Great Mills, Maryland; and Parkland, Florida, kids are faced with the fact that tragedy strikes the young and innocent in what they once thought were safe places. Since it’s hard to reassure kids struggling to understand these traumatic events, we asked experts for advice.
Detective K. DiGravio, of the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office Child Victims Unit, says investigators are trained in forensic interviewing. This makes gathering information from a child is as non-traumatic as possible.
“Many times, parents had trauma in their childhood,” says DiGravio. “When their child faces a traumatic situation, sometimes they aren’t equipped to deal with their child’s trauma.”
She advises parents to seek counseling for their child, even if they object. “The child doesn’t understand what long-term effects trauma may cause. It’s important for him to see a professional to make the determination of whether he could benefit from therapy,” she adds.
DiGravio says kids need to know they’re not alone. Since March’s shootings, kids have commented about being anxious, and one child said it’s not safe anywhere you go. Sadly, kids are accepting this type of violence as the norm.
“It’s important to let the child know he has every right to feel the way he does,” she says. “If he sees or hears something that bothers him, he should tell his parents, the School Resource Officer (SRO) or another responsible adult.”
The Spotsylvania and Stafford County Sheriff’s Offices provide SROs to middle and high schools. As liaisons between the school and the Sheriff’s Office, the SRO offers law enforcement expertise to staff, students, parents and others in the school system. Knowing officers are available on-campus adds a sense of comfort to the students.
The board of supervisors wants to provide additional SRO positions for all Spotsylvania County Public Schools.
Susan Wismer, MSW, QMHP, of the National Counseling Group in Fredericksburg, says children need to feel protected. If trauma occurred close to home or affects a child’s sense of safety—and the child is aware of it—an age-appropriate, brief and factual approach can be stated. Reassuring children that adults are addressing the issue and will do whatever possible to protect and take care of him is important.
Wismer’s favorite quote is “Always be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind. Whenever possible, follow your child’s need. Whenever necessary, take charge.” She says kids of all ages benefit from having a sense of structure they can rely on. Her suggestions for kids present during a trauma include the following.
- Professional help may be indicated.
- Don’t press the child to recall events.
- Let the child know you’re available to listen, or just be present.
- Art supplies/physical outlets may help (without referencing the trauma).
Wismer says to put things in perspective in regard to school shootings. It’s helpful for kids to understand the relative risk of school being safer than the drive to and from it. Explaining that just like using seatbelts in cars and following traffic laws keep them safe, we enact procedures and laws to make schools safer.
“Encouraging kids to be kind to others and letting adults know of troubling behaviors or comments by a peer can help a child feel he has some personal control,” says Wismer. “If there’s cause for concern about the child, it’s important to ensure a professional consultation.”
Beside Stafford County Sheriff’s Office’s SROs at middle and high schools, two Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers are rotated through each of the elementary schools. During “School Watch,” deputies check on schools and interact with the kids.
“With an uptick of threats targeting schools nationwide, we’re providing additional security for the remainder of the school year,” says Stafford County Sheriff David P. Decatur. “The added Sheriff’s Office presence is at school beginning and departure times.”
Since 2013, Decatur says the Sheriff’s Office has taught more than 1,000 school personnel in “Active Shooter Countermeasures” training—proactive, progressive training to aid in prevention, mitigation and survival during a school shooting. A Task Force has been implemented and includes “See Something, Say Something.” Schools are promoting “See Something, Say Something,” and Stafford SRO Sergeant Carol Burgess recently shared the message with students at Rodney Thompson Middle School in Stafford County. Students were encouraged to notify adults of suspicious activities. To remind them to speak up and participate in keeping the school community safe, they received themed bracelets.