The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 17, 2012

Local parents, educators tackle first day of school since Connecticut shooting

By Emily Younker

— Before sending her 6-year-old daughter, Grayce, to school Monday morning, Jill Fichtner, of Riverton, Kan., discussed with her Friday’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that left 20 children her age dead.

“I felt like I needed to be the one who guided that conversation,” instead of Grayce hearing of the incident from her classmates, she said. “I’m her mother, first and foremost.”

Teachers and students returned to school Monday for the first time since the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 26 people — most of them children ages 6 and 7 — dead. In the Joplin area, parents said they were figuring out how to broach the subject with their young children, and vigilance at local schools appeared to be higher than usual as administrators beefed up security.

Fichtner said her conversation with her daughter consisted of what gunshots sounded like and what Grayce should do if she heard those sounds in school. She said Grayce, close to tears, eventually confided to her that she worried about not being fast enough or finding a good enough hiding spot to escape danger.

On Monday morning, Fichtner walked Grayce into her classroom and realized as she walked that she was scanning the building for exits and possible hiding places for her daughter. Grayce was excited to see her friends and was looking forward to participating in a Christmas program Monday night, Fichtner said.

Her daughter’s safety remains her highest priority, she said.

“You can cling to your guns, and you can cling to your Second Amendment,” Fichtner said, “but I would like my child to be able to cling to her childhood for it to be longer than six years.”

Cassie Mathes, a mother of three young children, said she did not talk to her 4-year-old son, Fisher, before he went to his preschool class at Carterville Elementary School because she thought he was too young to understand Friday’s shooting, and she didn’t want to frighten him. She even questioned whether to take him to his class at all.

“You’re wondering, ‘Should we take him? Should we not (take him) if he doesn’t even have to be there?’” she said.

But because Fisher’s class had planned a field trip to King Jack Park in Webb City to ride the Christmas-themed trolley, Mathes’ husband took him to school. The school’s principal and two police officers were standing at the front door, greeting students as they entered, she said.

“I just felt a sense of relief,” she said.

Each Webb City school had at least one police officer stationed there Monday morning, although that is not a permanent practice, Superintendent Anthony Rossetti said. He said the first day back in classes since the Connecticut shooting went smoothly.

“Our kids are learning; they’re in the classrooms,” he said. “I think everyone’s myth of safety has been somewhat infringed upon, but we’re having school in Webb City. Kids need to get back in a routine; parents need to get back in a routine.”

Law enforcement personnel from the Crawford County (Kan.) Sheriff’s Department will be stationed this week at every school in that county, including in Pittsburg, schools alongside officers from the city Police Department, Superintendent Destry Brown said.

“We felt like an added presence at the buildings would help ease some of that tension that parents were feeling,” he said. “They’ll also be checking all of our security measures and looking for ways we might be able to improve.”

Counselors were available Monday in Pittsburg schools, and Brown said a handful of students had asked by that afternoon to talk to them.

Educators in Neosho schools had been advised to keep an eye on their students, and school counselors were “on alert” Monday for any students who might need support, interim Superintendent Alma Stipp said.

“We’re trying to conduct a normal day but be vigilant in case we need to do anything for students,” she said. “We’re just trying to be very vigilant and observant without causing any undue alarm on the part of the students. We are prepared to deal with it should something come up that needs to be addressed.”

Jennifer Doshier, principal at McKinley Elementary School in Joplin, said she was at the front door greeting students and parents — something she normally tries to do — but didn’t have any discussions with anxious parents about Friday’s events.

“Obviously we’ve had a few people wanting to know what our safety procedures were, and I was able to tell them because we practice those regularly,” she said. “Honestly, it (school on Monday) was very smooth. Really, everything I heard was positive.”

Joplin Superintendent C.J. Huff said teachers and staff were asked to monitor their students for anyone struggling with the issue. Police also patrolled school neighborhoods a little more closely than usual, he said.

“The kids did great,” he said. “We have a lot of resources on hand, so we’re keeping close tabs on our kiddos,” he said. “I think that our responsibility now is just to take a look at that situation and what we learned from that, and see what we can do to improve the quality and safety of our schools.”

Ann Leach, a grief recovery specialist in Joplin, said children thrive on routine and structure — one reason why going back to school Monday was so important — and that parents and teachers should take note of their questions and feelings.

“We need to remember that our kids, as innocent as they are, are also some of the smartest people on the planet, and they know, they’re aware, they can pick up on what’s right and what isn’t, and so to truly honor who they are, as adults we need to meet them where they’re at,” she said.

Leach suggested that parents and teachers keep conversations calm and natural, give children access to familiar things such as their favorite toys and reassure them that safety procedures are in place.

“It’s about creating that safe space for the conversation, the assurance that there is a plan, that there are lots of helpers here that want you to be safe and protected, that there’s a web of support,” she said.

Tips for parents about talking to children about violence

• Reassure children that they are safe.

• Make time to talk.

• Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.

• Review safety procedures.

• Observe children’s emotional state.

• Limit television viewing of these events.

• Maintain a normal routine.

Source: National Association of School Psychologists