Preparing for the worst at school and at home

Depending on how you define a school shooting, since the beginning of 2018, there have been anywhere from seven to 18 in the United States. The higher figure includes everything from pre-meditated attacks to unintentional gunfire to stray bullets flying through school property. But does the actual number really matter? Isn't any number above zero too many?

As of the writing of this article, no northern Colorado school has experienced the horror of a mass shooting and hopefully, no NoCo school ever will. But we have to acknowledge it's possible.

"Events such as what happened in Florida and elsewhere are tragic and our hearts break each time we hear of these terrible tragedies," says Heather Gooch, Estes Park School District public information officer. "It also drives home the reality it can happen anywhere, including here."

Prepared for the possible

Like school districts across the nation, the Estes Park School District, Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6, Poudre School District (PSD) and Thompson School District (TSD) have plans in place to prevent school shootings and other tragedies from taking place. In fact, you can visit any one of the local districts' websites to learn about their exact protocols involving school safety of all kinds.

Speaking for his own district, but he could be speaking for all NoCo districts, John Gates, the Greeley-Evans School District director of school safety and security, says, "We have a number of policies and procedures in place in our district to create a safe school environment."

Danielle Clark, PSD executive director of communications, summarizes what PSD and all districts do:

  • Train throughout the year with law enforcement to implement security measures to ensure our schools are safe learning environments for children. Maintaining a single point of entry for each school with security cameras around campus
  • Practicing lockdown and lockout drills at each school (including active shooter drills)
  • Implement specific protocols, including individual student safety plans, if a threat against the school or student is identified
  • Conduct ongoing crisis response training across the district and at each school

Plus, all local districts encourage their students and parents to report suspicious behavior, rumors and all safety concerns through the Safe2Tell hotline: 1-877-542-SAFE (7233). Callers remain anonymous.

"We have reinforced with our staff and students that if they see something to say something. Knowing what is going on in the school and community is the best way to prevent issues from escalating into violence at school," Clark says.

Jesse Lunsford, TSD safety and security manager, adds, "The Thompson School District employs a two-tier system to address any communicated threats. The process we use is based on recommendations made by the U.S. Secret Service and the Colorado Safe Schools Resource Center. Upon receipt of any threat, trained members of the school threat assessment team contact the district security department to initiate a threat screening. Depending on results of the screening, an investigation will begin which will involve collecting all pertinent information and interviewing students, staff, family and members of the community."

A system similar to this exists in each of NoCo's school districts. All reports are taken seriously and investigated.

Gooch says it boils down to this. "We are dedicated to keeping our students safe, and we will continue to evaluate our processes regarding safety and security."

Mental health matters

When violence strikes anywhere in the nation, local students can get help to process it.

After the latest shooting in Florida, "We had counselors ready with tips for students and families…that included resources for helping parents talk about grief, loss and tragedy," says Clark.

"Among the advice we give is that students stay away from news broadcasts and electronic media as much as possible, as it can often exacerbate anxiety and stress," adds Lunsford.

On an ongoing basis, all local districts try to teach kids to be kind and to work out their differences in a variety of non-violent ways, such as through restorative justice and Peace Circles.

Gooch says, the Estes Park School District "…employs restorative justice principles to educate staff and students, as well as build a foundation of trust and understanding between peers. Restorative practices are about creating stronger communities and cultivating relationships, and this is part of our proactive safety and security plan at recognizing potentially harmful behavior."

Kiri Saftler, a Peace Circle trainer and facilitator, explains, “The purpose of the Peace Circle is to practice public acknowledgement of appreciation for others’ kindnesses and, in a safe environment, respectfully air small grievances and hurts before they grow to become grudges and full-blown conflicts. The intention of using a model such as Peacekeeper Circles in the classrooms is to help build a school climate and culture of caring and compassion.”

What's a parent to do?

School programs and curricula help NoCo students become more caring, but the first place children learn how to treat others isn’t in their classrooms—it's in the rooms of their homes. Children learn from observing and modeling the behavior of their parents and other family members. Knowing that, parents—indeed, all of us—must be intentional about treating others the way they want to be treated.

Specific to how to address traumatic events with their children, parents should remember that everyone responds differently.

Carl Nassar, professional counselor and director at Heart-Centered Counseling, says some kids are consumed by the busyness of their lives, and the incident feels removed enough from their day to day reality, that the impact is small (or not as large as adults might expect). Other kids may be deeply impacted, but, perhaps modeling themselves after adults around them, tend to feel that they can get through this on their own, and their feelings get repressed rather than expressed, only to worsen or come out sideways over time. A small number of kids are able to express their feelings and get support, initially from family and friends, and hopefully from school and professional counselors who can support deeper healing.

He recommends that in the wake of an event like a school shooting, "…take some extra time with your child, create some slow time, and in the gentleness of that slow time, talk about how you’re both feeling—about different parts of life. And slowly move, if appropriate, to talking about school shootings, and your feelings there, and inquire about their feelings. If the child is young enough that they haven’t heard the news on their own, then decide, based on your child’s anxiety level and your felt experience of your child, if it’s appropriate to share the story in an age-appropriate way."

Rumi, Persian scholar, theologian and poet, said, "It's hard to be a candle. In order to give light, first one must burn."

People in the U.S. are burning—with fear, with disgust, with outrage, with sadness. Hopefully, one day soon, our light will break through the darkness and school shootings won't be a reoccurring event in our world.