Empower, don't scare: How to talk about school shootings

By Kavita Varma-White

In the past week, we’ve learned of two school shootings where kids have been terrified, injured, and even killed.

The parents and kids of Bremerton, Wash., and Chardon, Ohio -- just like those of Littleton and Santee and DeKalb in the past  -- are struggling to understand why such tragedies happened in their communities .

But we all know the answer to that: Because random violence has no geographical bias. As Chardon School Superintendent Joseph Bergant II said recently

"This is every place. As you’ve seen in the past, this can happen anywhere, proof of what we had yesterday.”

As  caring adults – parents, grandparents, teachers – the true-but-scary “it can happen anywhere” response is hardly comforting for kids. Instead, we have to learn how to empower kids and schools and teach them they aren’t helpless and the situation isn’t hopeless. Here are four ways to start.

Kidpower, an organization that focuses on personal safety for kids and teens, has some recommendations on how to talk to kids about incomprehensible tragedies such as the Chardon shootings. Co-founder Irene Van Der Zande writes:  

1. Be a calm, safe person to talk to. After a frightening event, listen with empathy so that young people can talk to you about their fears without being burdened by your fears. Give them opportunities to grieve for what has happened. Acknowledge that our world is not a perfect place, but it is a wonderful place. Help kids to feel empowered by making positive changes in their own communities and schools.

2. Make sure it is “safe to tell” at school. Figure out how the school can help kids feel safe about speaking up if someone’s behavior is worrying them, without fear of retaliation, overreaction, or being discounted. Have a plan of action for how to handle the situation when they do speak up.

3. Prepare both kids and school staff with knowledge and skills. When an attack happens, your actions in a few seconds can make a huge difference. Prepare kids to run away from the shooting and get to safety if they hear or see shooting . Prepare adults to assess the situation, direct students to leave, call or text for help immediately, decide if it is the best choice to intervene with the person shooting, and figure out how to do this as safely as possible. In this shooting, it sounds like a teacher was able to take charge of the situation, very likely preventing more violence.

4. Make sure that every student has mentoring and support. Even if they have problems, young people who feel cared for and connected are far less likely to engage in violence than those who feel alienated and alone. Reach out to troubled kids. Notice and reach out to anyone who seems isolated. Address bullying and other violence immediately. Commit to creating a community of caring, respect, and safety for everyone.

Related content: School shootings: Trauma can last for years

One more thing to keep in mind: School shootings make national news because they are horrific and because they are very rare. The tips above could certainly apply in many more everyday situations. Yes, we should talk to our kids about what to do if a fellow student has a gun. But the reality is that there are plenty of common threats, ranging from bullying to stranger danger to drunk driving, that can much more easily plague our kids.

All of which can – and, sadly, does – happen anywhere.

For more information, see this additional Kidpower resource: Violence in Schools: Solutions for Empowering Children.