Leading school psychologist offers advice following Sandy Hook shooting
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.”
National Association of School Psychologists president Amy Smith speaks to area residents Sunday morning about the Dec. 14 shooting in Connecticut.