At a local high school in Florida, a fire alarm was pulled by a student. This is the second time since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida that the fire alarm at this school was activated. Since nearly all the students, teachers, and staff know that the Parkland shootings began with a fire alarm being pulled, the fear is high. Many students chose not to leave the building and instead hid in closets and barricaded classrooms.
The problem is that a couple of years ago, the fire alarm went off because there was a fire in the school. A chemistry experiment went wrong causing a small fire that affected several classrooms. Most of these students remember the incident. So what does a student do? Do they leave the school for fear of a fire and risk being shot? Or do they remain for fear of a shooter and risk being in a fire?
A few miles away, at rival high school, the school goes on lockdown/lockout shortly after dismissal. Students who are left in the building are not allowed to leave and students outside of the building are asked to leave immediately. Within minutes, the police arrive to secure the area as a helicopter flies above.
Because our home is a block away from the school, it becomes a temporary safe zone for several students to wait. The students don’t know what is happening, they are just terrified. The memory of Parkland becomes a real fear. All over the area, this type of incident is happening daily.
And the fear is not just at high schools. Does a parent send their child to:
- Church? First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX; 2017: 26 victims killed, 20 injured.
- Concert? Las Vegas, NV; 2017; 58 victims killed, 851 injured.
- Night Club? Pulse, Orlando, FL; 2016; 49 victims killed, 58 injured.
- Movie Theatre? Century 16 Movie Theatre; Aurora, CO; 2012; 12 victims killed; 70 injured.
- Cafeteria? Luby’s Kitchen, Killeen, TX; 1991; 23 victims killed, 27 injured.
- College? Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA; 2007; 32 victims killed, 23 injured.
- Elementary School? Sandy Hook Elementary, Newton, CT; 2012; 26 victims killed.
- Indian Reservation? Red Lake High School, Red Lake MN: 2005: 10 victims killed, 7 injured.
- Christian College? Oikos University, Oakland, CA: 2012; 7 victims killed, 3 injured.
- McDonalds? San Ysidro, CA; 1984; 21 victims killed, 19 injured.
- Community College? Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, OR; 2013; 10 victims killed, 9 injured.
- Military? Fort Hood, TX; 2009; 13 victims killed, 30 injured.
- Prayer Meeting? Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC; 2015; 9 victims killed, 3 injured.
- Holiday Party? San Bernardino, CA: 2015; 15 victims killed, 22 injured.
- Homeschool? Houston, TX; 2001; Andrea Yates killed her 5 children.
Yes to all. These incidents of terror strike fear at the core of a person’s being. What seemed safe is no longer safe. As adults, it is our responsibility to model healthy manifestation of anxiety and fear for our children. They learn best by seeing, not by lectures. This means teaching our kids what to do in the event of an emergency other than calling 911. They need to find safe locations, protect themselves, and help others who need assistance. Anxiety is a friend, not a foe. It is a warning indicator that something is not right. Fear is a gift. It signals that danger is very close and it is time to take cover. These emotions don’t need to be medicated (dulled so the response time is lower) rather they need to be embraced as normal and healthy (so response time is quicker).
Talk to kids. Every parent should be talking to their kids about what they are feeling and thinking. This is not about telling a child what or how they should think or feel; rather it is about allowing them to express themselves naturally. Some kids are not affected by all of the recent disturbances in schools, while others are unable to function. There should be a balance of normalcy in routine mixed with awareness for potential dangers. Sometimes this means talking to kids about these dangers in an age appropriate manner. Not talking to them at all could set them up to be a victim.
Turn off media. There are times when too much information is just too much and this is one of them. Knowing all of the details from a shooting allows kids and adults to imagine things that can be harmful. Some even develop a secondary traumatic stress response which is a lighter version of post-traumatic stress disorder. This can increase anxiety, not reduce it. Learn individual limits. Some can handle more information, others less. This is not a competition.
Take action. There are several ways parents and students can be heard. Attend a school board meeting, a PTA meeting for the school, write to congress, write articles, and/or join an activist group. It takes courage to stand up for beliefs and affect change. This happens when people become passionate about doing better for the next generation so they don’t have to live in an environment of terror.
For me personally, as a mental health professional, I believe that it is time for our profession to evaluate would be gun owners. In most of the incidents mentioned above, the shooter was a deeply troubled individual who needed mental health intervention. The time to intervene is before, not after they possess a weapon.