Newtown shooting resonates in Union County

Dec. 17, 2012 @ 05:54 PM

Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn. shook many parents and caused concerns about school safety across the nation. 

Concerns that Union County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis was quick to assuage. 

"As I mourn those students and staff who passed away, my full attention is on the students in our system. In the Union County Public Schools system, the safety and security of our students and staff is our foremost concern," Ellis wrote in a letter sent to parents and other community members. 

Monday was "very much a normal day," Ellis said. Adding that she was grateful. 

There were a few more parents in the schools at the elementary level and an increased law enforcement presence on Monday, however, it was a "routine, normal day," Ellis said. 

She noted there was a "heightened sense of alert" among teachers, principals and staff.

"But we want normalcy for children and thank goodness that's what we received," Ellis said. 

Jarrod McCraw, safety and security director for Union County Public Schools, said they are in the process of reviewing safety and security plans. 

"We're heard from parents about safety and security plans in schools," McCraw said. 

However, McCraw feels that parents can be confident that the staff members are abreast of the procedures. They reviewed the lockdown procedures with staff and students Monday. 

In the beginning of every school year, the safety and security department reviews lockdown procedures with all staff members and they have a practice lockdown one time per semester at a minimum, McCraw said. 

McCraw said the schools are safe. 

"We're working closely with local law enforcement...they're assisting us in making sure our safety plans are sufficient." 

Monday and through the rest of the week, officers will be on school campuses, McCraw said. 

School Board Member Kevin Stewart added school safety to the January agenda. As facilities committee chairman, he plans to review and reevaluate the safety and security plans with the committee. 

In addition to safety concerns, many parents will grapple with how to explain the situation to their children. 

"It's probably best to respond to questions that they may have," Don Merrill, a professor and dean of the Cannon College of Arts & Sciences at Wingate University, said. "They probably have seen it on television and for parents to be receptive to the fact that they may want to talk about that and just ask if they have seen it on the news to say, 'Would you like to talk about that?'" 

Merrill advised to answer questions and let the questions guide the conversation, instead of trying to recount the events from the beginning. 

Jay Wilder, an associate professor and chair of the department of psychology at Wingate University who specializes in child psychology, also advised to err on the side of less detail, as opposed to more detail. 

"Parents should probably be as open and honest as they are comfortable," Wilder said. 

He added that it is important to be aware of the child's developmental level. Every child's develop will be different, however there is an idea that at age six children become more aware of what is happening in the world, Wilder said. 

This may also be a time to review any family safety procedures, like not talking to strangers and identifying safe people apart from a child's parents, like a teacher or family friend, Wilder said.

Parents may grapple with the question of "why?" A question many, from parents to law enforcement officials, are trying to answer.

"Be relatively direct and yet indicate that we do not understand why this would happen," Merrill said. "I think for someone to say to the child, he must have just been really frightened and he was really hurting bad and we just don't know why he did that."  

If a child is afraid or acknowledging their feelings, Wilder said it is important to acknowledge the emotions and say that whatever the child is experiencing is okay. 

"Emotions are real," Wilder said. "There's no right or wrong way to feel about this for everybody." 

If a child admits to being scared, the parents should acknowledge that fear, but also reassure the child that the schools are safe, Wilder said. 

In younger children, if they are not eating as much, don't sleep well or seem irritable, it could be a sign that they need to talk to someone about their feelings, Wilder said. 

"One thing I think that's real important though," Wilder said. "I would limit the child's exposure to TV. ...make sure they're not amping up fears that don't need to be amped up." 

"It's not worth letting them view the 24/7 coverage," Wilder said. "Parents can make their own decision, but I think too much exposure to that is a bad thing." 

For some children, this may lead to their first encounter with the idea of death. 

"This is an issue that children often address (with) the death of pets," Merrill said. He added that losing a pet is often their first encounter with death and parents could relate that experience with the shootings in Connecticut. 

"So many of us would address this in terms of religion," Merrill said. Parents could tell children that they went home with God, he added. 

Adults may also grapple with the tragedy. 

"Parents need their own counseling in terms of talking to each other," Wilder said. "I think adults need that reassurance from each other."

He advised to have these discussions out of the earshot of children, though. 

Parents also need to acknowledge any fears they have, Merrill said. 

"The reality is that it's very, very rare that this happens," Merrill said. "It's actually very unlikely that it's going to happen and parents, I think, can receive some comfort."

However, the future is uncertain. 

"The reality is that it could happen," Merrill said. "I think (it's important) for parents to acknowledge that there is something to be concerned about." 

However, Merrill added, approximately 2 percent of individuals who experience this type of mental illness are violent. 

"The overwhelming majority of them are not," Merrill said. "Most of the time, these individuals are victims of violence, not perpetrators." 

For their part, the schools will review their safety and security procedures. 

"Training in school safety for school staff is ongoing. Yearly, UCPS teachers participate in the Critical Incident training provided by the NC Attorney General’s Office. The students and staff of each school participate in regular lockdown drills. Law Enforcement assists with these lockdown drills and then meets with school staff afterwards to discuss process improvement," Ellis wrote in her letter.