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When school doesn't feel safe, facing facts helps

The Oklahoman via AP

Children wait for their parents to arrive at Briarwood Elementary school after a tornado destroyed the school in south Oklahoma City, Okla., on Monday. One student there died.

Parents across the country took a collective deep breath on Tuesday as they prepared their children for school. It's been a traumatic year -- the shootings in Newtown, Conn., the Boston marathon bombings, and now a devastating tornado in Oklahoma that has killed 24 people and buried a school full of cowering youngsters, killing seven. 

It’s understandable that children and parents are affected by these events, even those living far away, psychologists say.

“It’s that fear of the unknown – the ‘my God, that could happen to me’,” says Katey Smith , who heads the trauma response team at The Center of Hope, a nonprofit family support center in Greenwich, Conn. “This time, it was an act of God or a natural disaster, which can be just as scary if not scarier, because there is nothing you can do to stop it. You can’t stop a tornado. People are feeling powerless."

Worse, the children were killed and injured in schools, places where they are supposed to be protected and safe. Parents drop their children off in the morning believing they'll be well taken care of until they pick them up - not that they'll be waiting in the rubble of the parking lot to find out if their child is alive or dead, as parents of children at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., did on Monday. Nearby Briarwood Elementary was also destroyed and one child was killed there

But there are ways to cope and they often involve facing the facts; limiting exposure to endless media reports about the disasters; and giving people something to do.

Looking at the real facts about a disaster can be reassuring, says Steve Brock, director of the school psychology graduate training program at California State University, Sacramento.

“Be honest and factual with your children,” Brock said in a telephone interview. “The truth is that what happened in Moore, Okla., and especially what happened at Sandy Hook elementary school are extraordinarily rare events.”

“Statistically, these situations are so incredibly rare,” agrees Eric Rossen, director of professional development and standards for the National Association of School Psychologists. He headed a team looking for information on school killings after the Newtown shootings, in which 20 first-graders were killed. “We were able to find statistics that showed there would be one homicide in each (U.S.) school every 5,000 years,” Rossen said.

Even when parents may be feeling worried themselves, they need to help their children feel safe, experts say.

 “I think it’s our job as adults to put it in the proper perspective,” Rossen added. “We want to give them the objective facts that help them understand the threat.” Older children and teenagers benefit from hearing the statistics. While two terrible events have affected schools in a single year, Rossen points out there are thousands of schools and tens of millions of schoolchildren.

“Try not to sidestep this. You don’t want to lie,” says Rossen. “You want to say there was a tornado and people were hurt by it.” But then it’s time to reassure children they are safe, now.

Parents should focus on being calm, because kids pick up on emotional responses.

“One thing I would tell the parents – their reactions are powerful,” Rossen said. “You see this all the time in younger children – something or frightening happens and they immediately refer back to Mom and Dad. Be careful about how you act and how you respond in front of the children.”

Another rule: Watch what the kids are watching. “You want to limit their exposure to the coverage of the event,” says Rossen. “As a caring adult, be present if they are watching it.”

Smaller children probably should not watch or hear such news at all -- they cannot process it, the experts agreed. But even older children need help managing the overload. "In today’s society you can be viewing this stuff literally 24/7," Brock said.

And there's no reason to bring it up if a child seems unaware or uninterested. "I am not saying we put our kids on an island and pretend these bad things don’t happen. They do," Brock added.

People were traumatized by the media images of the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, Brock says. “After the Oklahoma City bombing, kids who watched more television were more anxious and more stressed than kids who watched less television. Monitor their viewing and in some cases, perhaps, restrict it,” he advised.

“Too much media exposure of this kind can really heighten their anxiety,” agreed Cindy Dickinson, crisis intervention manager for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools and a head of the National Association for School Psychologists.

Even in adults, watching the images over and over can provoke anxiety and what’s known as vicarious trauma. “It’s something in my living room. I can go turn on my TV now and see that tornado,” Brock said said. “Imagine what it is doing to young, impressionable kids who don’t have world experience -- they haven’t flown across the country a couple of times and don’t realize how far away these events may be.”

All the experts agreed that it’s best to direct kids and children alike to the positive things that are happening – police, firefighters and neighbors rushing to help the victims and one another. "Remind them who the helpers are in the school community," says Dickinson. Like the teacher in Moore, who draped herself over six children to protect them.

Rule number three – give people something to do.

“One of the messages that is very empowering is knowing how to reach those you care about in an emergency,” Dickinson said. A disaster like this one offers an opportunity to rehearse emergency preparations. “Kids need to know who to call if you can’t reach your parents so you can say you are OK,” she said.

If done at a calm time, such rehearsals don’t worry children but give them a sense of control, Dickinson says. “That is why we have fire drills and so forth in schools,” she said. “When the real thing comes, they save lives. That’s the message.” Memorizing cellphone numbers is a helpful exercise and can pay off in times of confusion.

Older children and teenagers benefit from even more. “Tell them, ‘let’s talk about some ways we can help each other if there’s an emergency, how we can alert people and help them stay safe’,” Dickinson says.

“Eleven to 12-year-olds really have a sense of moral responsibility and of  trying to help others. They really take things on like this.”

And helping the victims can help everyone cope, Dickinson says. “We want to remind them the nation cares,” she said.

“Like with Newtown, so many people just want to help,” Smith agreed. “That’s a great way to feel you are doing something.” It’s important to work through organizations – Newtown officials had to deal with piles of stuffed animals that ended up being more of a problem than a help.

Memorials can also help – religious ceremonies, candle-lighting events, moments of silence.  Acts of public ritual are also helpful because they allow action to be taken, they require organization and they reaffirm community structure,” Smith said.


Brandi Kline and her two sons, both students at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, Okla., which was directly hit by the tornado Monday afternoon, recount their experiences. Damian Britton says his teacher threw her body over him and his classmates to shield them from the storm.