Lead­ing school psy­chol­o­gist of­fers ad­vice fol­low­ing Sandy Hook shoot­ing

North Penn Life - - News - By Michael Alan Gold­berg mgold­berg@jour­nalregis­ter.com

With lo­cal stu­dents and teach­ers re­turn­ing to class­rooms Mon­day, the deadly mass shoot­ing at a Con­necti­cut ele­men­tary school fresh on their minds, lead­ing school psy­chol­o­gist Amy Smith spent Sun­day morn­ing in a side room of the Trin­ity Lutheran Church in Lans­dale try­ing to ease some of the fear and con­cerns with a sim­ple mes­sage.

“Schools are safe places,” said Smith, a Skip­pack na­tive and pres­i­dent of the Bethesda, Md.-based Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of School Psy­chol­o­gists. “What hap­pened is hor­rific but ex­tremely rare. We send 56 mil­lion kids to schools ev­ery day, and sta­tis­ti­cally, they are safer in school than any­where else.”

cor nearly an hour, Smith spoke to a group of about 25 area educators, coun­selors, par­ents and grand­par­ents — many of whom, like Smith, be­long to the church — about how to talk to kids about what hap­pened at Sandy Hook El- emen­tary School Dec. 14. She stressed the need to re­main calm and strong in the face of the de­tails of a ram­page that claimed 26 vic­tims, in­clud­ing 20 young chil­dren. School psy­chol­o­gist (and NASP mem­ber) Mary Sher­lach was also among the dead.

“You will be their barom­e­ter of how to re­spond to this, so if you are up­set — and I ap­pre­ci­ate those kinds of feel­ings — try not to show that in front of our kids,” said Smith. “Be­ing sad or fright­ened is per­fectly Oh, but if you fall apart in front of the kids, you will do more harm than good.”

Smith em­pha­sized sev­eral points and strate­gies to use. Of para­mount im­por­tance, she said, was re­as­sur­ing kids that they’re safe not only by go­ing over their school’s se­cu­rity pro­ce­dures — such as locked doors, hall mon­i­tors, teacher and first-re­spon­der train­ing, school mon­i­tors and emer­gency drills — but also by ex­plain­ing the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the pos­si­bil­ity that a vi­o­lent in­ci­dent could oc­cur and the very re­mote prob­a­bil­ity that it ac­tu­ally will.

“The odds of this hap- pen­ing really are in­cred­i­bly small,” said Smith.

When talk­ing to kids about what hap­pened in Con­necti­cut and field­ing ques­tions, “keep the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open and an­swer hon­estly but in de­vel­op­men­tally ap­pro­pri­ate lan­guage — talk at a level they can un­der­stand,” said Smith.

cor ex­am­ple, she said early ele­men­tary school chil­dren pri­mar­ily need to be told that they’re pro­tected from harm, while high school stu­dents likely can han­dle dis­cus­sions about the causes of vi­o­lence in schools and the things they can do to help keep their schools safe, such as re­port­ing strangers on cam­pus or be­ing ob­ser­vant of their class­mates’ emo­tional states.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Smith ad­vised that kids main­tain their nor­mal rou­tines and that their ex­po­sure to me­dia cov­er­age of the Sandy Hook shoot­ing, par­tic­u­larly tele­vi­sion, be lim­ited. She also waded into more con­tro­ver­sial wa­ters af­ter rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an in­creased po­lice pres­ence at lo­cal schools in re­ac­tion to the shoot­ings.

“I have very mixed feel­ings about that,” said Smith. “cor us to say we need a lot of metal de­tec­tors, or we need teach­ers to be armed with guns, or we need guards ev­ery­where, that’s not go­ing to stop th­ese things. So if that is some­thing to be dis­cussed at your school district, then I think that peo­ple need to think long and hard about how they’re ac­tu­ally try­ing to make our kids feel safer, rather than just try­ing to make them­selves feel bet­ter.”

Smith earned vig­or­ous nods from the group when she said that a big­ger dif­fer­ence maker may be di­rect­ing more fo­cus and re­sources to­ward men­tal health aware­ness and treat­ment — which is a topic that older kids may want to talk about in re­la­tion to the shoot­ing.

“I sus­pect that this was the act of a very men­tally ill young man, and if noth­ing else, can we please learn as a so­ci­ety that we need bet­ter ac­cess to men­tal health treat­ment?” said Smith. “Of the chil­dren who have men­tal health needs, 70 per­cent to 80 per­cent of them get their treat­ment at school be­cause they don’t have ac­cess any­where else. And what’s one of the first things to get cut when bud­gets are tight? School coun­selors.”

Smith’s words res­onated with haren Stro­bel of Hat­field, a former teacher at North Penn High School and mother of three chil­dren — ages 10, 12 and 13 — who said that the ses­sion was “very rel­e­vant and def­i­nitely help­ful for me” since her kids know about what hap­pened and have been ask­ing ques­tions about it.

“I don’t think you can to­tally pre­vent vi­o­lence from hap­pen­ing, but I feel like my kids are safe in their schools,” said Stro­bel. “But, we need to ed­u­cate our­selves and help peo­ple cope with men­tal ill­ness. I’m sure this per­son was men­tally ill, and not all men­tally ill peo­ple are vi­o­lent. But it would be great if we could really fo­cus on treat­ing men­tal ill­ness, and maybe just try to fos­ter some kind­ness and com­pas­sion, too.”

Photo by MICHAEL GOLD­BERG

Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of School Psy­chol­o­gists pres­i­dent Amy Smith speaks to area res­i­dents Sun­day morn­ing about the Dec. 14 shoot­ing in Con­necti­cut.

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