12/19/12 — Helping kids cope

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Helping kids cope

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 19, 2012 1:46 PM

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Meadow Lane Elementary School counselor Michelle Gurley said she has had a few students come and talk to her about the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Like other counselors and psychologists across the district, she encourages parents and teachers to provide age-appropriate responses to the child.

School psychologist Monica Ruiz was working in Wayne County Public Schools when the shooting at Columbine High School took place.

"You don't think anything's going to happen. It's just an isolated incident. You don't think it's going to happen again," Ms. Ruiz said Tuesday.

The ramifications of another school shooting with mass casualties, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., are being felt and dealt with by school personnel across the district.

"We got an e-mail from central office, that gave us some resources to use," said Michelle Gurley, school counselor at Meadow Lane Elementary School. "We have told our teachers that if students are having a problem and they want to talk about it, they can be referred to the counselor.

"Some are dealing with it in small groups in their classroom. They're not being encouraged to talk about it as a whole group (because) some parents are trying to shield them from all this."

While it is being handled on a case by case basis, Mrs. Gurley said that overall children are very resilient.

"I don't think they even realize what has happened," she said. "We're dealing with it as it comes up."

There have been instances where parents said their child was afraid to come to school, Mrs. Gurley said, and counselors at the school have addressed the fears individually.

"We talked to them and assured them that it's a safe place," she said. "We talked about the safety policies that we have in place. We have people that are always on the lookout if people aren't wearing their visitor's badge.

"It's really not been a big issue here. We don't want to make things worse and we certainly don't want to tell kids, especially if their parents are trying to shield them from that."

Schools officials responded quickly to the Friday afternoon reports of the shooting, which resulted in 26 deaths, 20 of those students.

"When Monday rolled around we were prepared to answer questions from kids of all ages," said Lisa Nemeth, lead school psychologist for the district.

She recommends parents be alert to changes in eating and sleeping patterns in the child as well as anxiety associated with school or a marked increase in questions.

"You really can have secondary stress from this," she explained. "You don't have to have been in the event to feel that stress. At some point, we need to turn that television off.

"Most of the time when parents talk to their kids, the best approach is to ask them some open-ended questions -- what they know of or maybe heard on the news. You can get their level of understanding on the situation. If you don't have a gauge on where they're coming from, you can give them too much information. If that's not enough, the kids will come back and ask more questions."

Ms. Ruiz, who is assigned to Northeast and Northwest elementary schools and Norwayne Middle and Charles B. Aycock High schools, said younger children might have difficulty articulating their feelings, while older students might find ways to channel those emotions.

"A lot of times at the high school level, they'll come up with things on their own to make a difference in their community," she said. "We encourage the teachers and parents to reinforce the facts and don't feed into the things that might not be true. Just try to stick to a normal routine, monitor the exposure, whether it be television or social media.

"And the students really pick up on the adults' feelings and the way that they're reacting, students are going to feed off that, too. Try to keep as normal a routine as possible, and yet be there to listen and discuss."

Tragedies like this can also trigger something that might have happened in the child's past, Ms. Ruiz said.

"We're just really right now asking our staff to keep their eyes on students, just know and make those resources available to them should that come up," she said. "Right now it's just more about making sure that they're safe and we're here for them."

The heightened alerts have required staff to be more vigilant, she said. But educators are not immune to their own reactions to the situation.

"The teachers are feeling the same things that some of the students are feeling," Ms. Ruiz said. "A lot of them are parents, too."

"I have heard some things from teachers and I have seen a lot of e-mails where the teachers ask, can we lock our doors, (and) someone has to knock before they come into the classroom so they can visibly see someone outside the class," Mrs. Nemeth said. "Teachers, this is having a real impact on them. There's a lot of vigilance out there."

The district has a crisis management plan in place that attempts to cover virtually any situation that could happen. Officials regularly review and update the plan, said the schools superintendent, Dr. Steven Taylor, all in the interest of safety.

"We do everything within our power, within our resources, within our policies, to make sure they're safe," he said. "This situation is just unimaginable. We pray every day that we will never have to be faced with that type of incident or situation in our county."

With 31 schools, more than 3,000 employees and nearly 20,000 students, Taylor said every effort is being made to reassure parents as well as children.

"School is just one location where kids are -- they go to malls, theaters, restaurants," he said. "I think we're as prepared as we can be."

"The bottom line is when a situation like this happens, there's not a parent, a teacher, a staff member, a community member that's not affected in some way," said Ken Derksen, director of communication services for the district. "We're going to do our very best to work with law enforcement. We're going to do our best to protect our students and our teachers. It's like a hurricane. It can happen, and we're going to do our best to prepare for it and deal with it if it happens."