Local schools try to reassure students in wake of Conn. shooting

Children clutching onto each other as they are hustled out of an elementary school. Parents weeping together in a school parking lot, police cars and ambulances flashing behind them. Police brandishing machine guns racing to a school.

While the images from Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., will haunt many, it is children — those who attend elementary schools much like the one where 20 students and six adults were killed — who may be the most profoundly affected, experts say.

"Children are going to be shaken by this because it was at a school, a place that is supposed to be safe and comforting," said Dr. Patrick Kelly, a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "There's something about this being at kindergarten that really hits people harder than some of the other school shootings we've seen."

Officials in three Baltimore-area school districts asked police to stop by schools Friday — particularly elementaries — to reassure teachers and students. In Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties, officers checked in throughout the day, although there were no local safety concerns.

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance said he has asked his newly created Department of Safety and Security to evaluate the school system's crisis plans.

Dance created the office after several gun incidents at county schools this year. On the first day of school, a Perry Hall High School student wounded a classmate, 17-year-old Daniel Borowy.

Milton Borowy, Daniel's father, said he was "heartbroken" watching the news of the Connecticut shootings and was praying for the families.

"It very obviously brings back memories," he said.

Borowy said he doesn't believe stricter gun laws would solve the problem of school violence "because the criminals are going to get their guns anyway." Instead, he believes, the country needs to focus on basic morals.

"We live in a morally depressed society," he said. "It's become too easy to vent frustrations in the wrong way."

Daniel recently returned to school, according to his father, who said he would never forget his son's cries.

"It's an ongoing process, but he's alive. He's doing the things he loves to do," he said. "He still has nightmares. But as weird as it is to say, we're in much better shape than these people are."

Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the county is spending "an unbelievable amount of money" on school safety, such as police presence, metal-detecting wands and a full-time safety director.

"An awful lot of that is necessary because we still have not addressed the issue of common-sense gun laws," said Beytin, who taught kindergarten. "We have to have that dialogue, and it has to start now."

Local school systems run periodic drills in which teachers and administrators practice responding to crises — including a shooter in the school.

"Every school has a plan for what to do," said Charles Herndon, a Baltimore County schools spokesman.

Herndon pointed to the shooting at Perry Hall High as an incident in which the training paid off. Faculty members wrestled the gunman to the ground before more people could be injured.

In elementary schools, Herndon said, teachers and administrators must keep children safe while maintaining a friendly environment. "It's difficult to strike the balance between schools being safe and secure and them being warm and welcoming," he said.

According to news reports, the Connecticut gunman's mother worked at the school.

Many domestic tensions spill over into violence at schools, school safety expert Michael Dorn said, whether it's a noncustodial parent trying to abduct a child or a teacher being stalked by a former spouse. In those cases, schools can take steps to prevent that person from entering the school, said Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a Georgia-based nonprofit organization.

For instance, if a school employee is being stalked, the principal, custodian and front-desk staff should have a photo of the stalker and description of his or her vehicle.

Nationwide, there has been more focus in recent years on training school employees about how to react quickly in dangerous situations and how to detect subtle changes in behavior, he said.

Dorn added that in elementary school, emergency drills need to be developmentally appropriate so that they don't traumatize young children. "Something that might not frighten a high school student might terrify a third-grader," he said.

Mental health professionals say that many children will be deeply affected by the shooting because it happened in an environment familiar to them, one they perceive as safe. Children will likely learn about the shooting, even if parents think they have kept the information from them, said Kari O'Grady, a pastoral counseling professor at Loyola University Maryland.

"They're probably going to hear about it at a neighbor's house or on TV, so it's important to be open with them," she said. O'Grady said parents should explain the incident to children in simple terms.

Parents should also limit their children's exposure to news coverage of the incident, particularly television reports featuring graphic images. Very young children might think that the shootings were occurring again and again, not realizing that the footage is all of the same incident, said O'Grady, who specializes in responding to crisis and trauma.

Kelly, the Hopkins psychiatrist, warned that children might have nightmares about the attack. Very young children can struggle with differentiating between reality and dreams, and need extra reassurance from parents, he said.

Children might regress — returning to sucking their thumbs or wetting the bed, for example — or they might become clingy or grow withdrawn, expert say. Parents should invite them to talk about the shooting or to express their emotions through drawing or play.

While all children will respond to the shootings differently, children who still appear disturbed about it in a week or two may need additional counseling, the experts said. They urged parents to set up an appointment with a pediatrician, mental health professional or school counselor if children remain fearful for a prolonged period.

When talking about the shooting, parents should not promise that such events could never happen to their children, but explain honestly that it is extremely unlikely, the experts said. "Children can sense when we're giving false promises," said O'Grady.

Both parents and children can take comfort in reviewing how their family would respond if there's a crisis, Kelly said. This can help children "have a sense of control in what is a fundamentally uncontrolled and sort of scary world we live in," he said.

Dr. Rahsaan Lindsey, medical director of Consultation and Crisis Intervention Associates at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center emergency room, said it's important to be open with children and willing to listen to them.

"I always stress there's nothing wrong with a little TLC, a little hug and 'I love you,' especially in situations like this," said Lindsey, a psychiatrist.

But come Monday, many children — and parents — will likely still be struggling with fears conjured up by the shooting.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there were a sudden rash of tummy aches Monday morning because kids are scared of going to school or parents are scared of dropping their kids off," Kelly said.

At least one local school system — Anne Arundel — said it plans to have county police at its schools when classes resume Monday morning.

Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.





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