Back to school: the right medicine for Sandy Hook, experts say

Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images
A Sandy Hook Elementry student flashes a sign as children leave on a school bus in Newtown, Connecticut January 3, 2013. Counselors say getting back to a routine is the best medicine for the surviving students.

Getting Sandy Hook’s children back to school on Thursday was one of the most important steps for healing their trauma, as well as getting their parents and the community back on track, mental health experts say. But the whole community will be immersed in mental health support for the foreseeable future.

More than 400 students from the school started back after their winter holiday, their first time back in class since Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 first-graders, six staffers,, his mother and himself with a semi-automatic rifle Dec. 14.

With their school building in Newtown still closed for a criminal investigation, an unused middle school in nearby Monroe was painted and refurbished for them. The kids rode yellow school buses to the new school, and that’s important therapy, says Katey Smith, who heads the trauma response team at The Center of Hope, a nonprofit family support center in nearby Greenwich, Ct. that’s helped in ounseling affected families in Newtown.

Newtown school massacre

Image: Victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are seen on artificial roses at a roadside memorial.
Brendan Smialowski

A nation mourns after the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history left 20 children and six staff members dead at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“I think it’s huge,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “We always tell people that trying to get back to a normal routine is so important.”

Thalia Anderen, a counselor at Center of Hope, says getting back to routines helps both parents and kids. “The longer they wait, the harder it will be to get back,” Anderen said.

They would have been prepared for heavy security at the new school. Assuring parents and children alike that the new school is safe is a key part of the mental health support they need, Smith and Anderen said. Police officers, therapy dogs and counselors were at the new school in Monroe on Thursday, but there were some other extras, too. Parents were allowed to stay in the building for the day.

“You have to make sure that the kids think everything will be fine,” Andersen said.

Nearby streets were decorated with balloons and welcome signs.

“Most of the kids were excited,” said Monroe, Conn., Police Lt. Keith White. “We don’t want them to think this is a police state. We want them to know this is a school and a school first,” he added. “Most of the buses were full ... most of the classes were full.”

But having security as well as a little fun should have helped, the counselors said. “There definitely are going to be kids that are going to be scared and they are going to to be anxious,” Andersen said. “As a parent dropping their kid off at school, you just assume that they are going to be safe.” The shootings, she said, shook parents “to the core."

Counseling the families who were directly affected, as well as their neighbors in southern Connecticut, will be a long-term project, says Smith, who worked in Newtown last month. “Local health providers have a brand new team just to deal with Sandy Hook. They will have a permanent team there that is working with them,” she said. Children will do better in group therapy sessions, Smith said. Many of the counselors will be using the “Dougy model” pioneered by the Portland, Ore.-based Dougy Center.

Some of the DougyCenter’s guidelines include listening to children, following routines, setting limits on behavior and using clear language such as saying someone died instead of “passed away." “Do not suggest that the student has grieved long enough,” the center advises on its website. “Do not indicate that the student should get over it and move on.”

The Greenwich-based facility held sessions for families not directly affected by the shootings, also, and Smith said she was surprised at how many people turned up. “People were just desperate to talk,” she said. As for Newtown residents, they’re advising folks to keep an eye on one another.

“We just want to make sure people don’t isolate themselves,” Smith said. “People who are unsupported have a greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

While the Sandy Hook killings were an extraordinary catastrophe, Smith says most of the children are likely to recover. “A lot of people are traumatized every day. The majority of them recover,” she said. “There are a small percentage that don’t recover. That is why we are coming in.”

Skilled counselors know the signs of someone who isn’t healing, and can intervene to get those people the help they need. “With good support, good family, love, people usually recover from trauma,” Smith said.

Families were allowed to visit the Monroe school last month to see where the children would be. “If you didn’t know that this incident had happened a week earlier you would not have known,” Anderen said. The children were happy to see their friends and classmates, she said. That’s a good sign. “It is going to change them but the hope is they are going to be stronger,” Anderen said.

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