FEATURE

When Bad Things Happen

Help kids navigate our sometimes-violent world.
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Jaspreet Singh, a student at Oak Creek High School in Oak Creek, Wisc., was determined to demonstrate strength. Her place of worship, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, had been attacked on Aug. 5, 2012, by a white supremacist with a gun who murdered six people and wounded four before killing himself. Singh’s mother had been trapped inside the temple during the rampage.

In the aftermath, Singh and other teens helped plan vigils and performed outreach to educate the wider community about her people’s faith and heritage. But sometimes the pain and fear welled up. “I was proud telling about the bravery that was shown and how everyone was helping each other [that day],” she says. “But after I shared, I kind of grieved. We were helping others, but there wasn’t always time to help ourselves.”

Teachers and staff at Oak Creek High, though, were ready to reach out to Singh and the Sikh community. In the days and weeks after the shooting, the school emerged as an important social center. The memorial service and community meetings were held in the school’s gym. “We staffed all our buildings with counselors and grief counselors,” says David Timmer, a social worker at Oak Creek High. “We came in on our own time.”

As the first day of school approached, district staff—along with representatives of the Red Cross and other agencies—set up shop in the temple’s reception area to answer questions and connect parents and students to support services. Administrators and staff readied themselves to meet the needs of affected students.

When the school year began, Singh says, she was reassured by the gentle attention from the adults around her. “They all told me, ‘If you ever need to talk, please let me know.’ It was really nice to hear that—not just from friends and peers, but from my mentors and teachers.”

Community violence—in which the victims and perpetrators do not know each other well, or at all—reaches into all American classrooms. It can bring its terrors directly into schools or do its damage in the wider community, as happened in Oak Creek and in the Boston marathon bombing last month. Many children and youths in high-crime areas are affected by chronic community violence in their neighborhoods.

Educators are in a unique position to help children navigate this sometimes-violent world. “We don’t ask teachers to be therapists, but they’re the ones on the front lines,” says Cathy Kennedy-Paine, a school psychologist and trauma specialist. “They’re the ones hearing kids’ stories.”

 

Forms of Community Violence

Students’ exposure to community violence can take four main forms: (1) a high-profile violent incident within the school or community; (2) a high-profile violent incident elsewhere that receives exhaustive news coverage; (3) chronic violence in the community that directly affects students, whether they are victims, witnesses or related to someone who was victimized; or (4) a climate of violence in which a sense of threat is constant, even though students may not be directly affected.

Children differ in their responses to these types of exposure depending on their age, temperament, upbringing, and family and community supports. Not surprisingly, the closer a child is to the violent event—in terms of physical proximity or emotional connection to a victim—the greater the chance the experience will overwhelm his coping skills and cause trauma.

Types of Community Violence

1. A high-profile violent incident within the school or community

2. A high-profile violent incident elsewhere that receives exhaustive news coverage

3. Chronic violence in the community that directly affects students, whether they are victims, witnesses or related to someone who was victimized

4. A climate of violence in which a sense of threat is constant, even though students may not be directly affected

“After a traumatic event, children’s questions always go back to safety,” says Marlene Husson, a clinical psychotherapist and grief counselor at Aurora Mental Health Center in Colorado. “‘Am I going to be OK now? If I leave my house, will I be safe?’ They can experience an inability to trust that the world is still a good place for them.”

In the days and weeks after an incident of community violence, a child’s disposition and behavior may change. Sadness, nervousness and grief are all common reactions. Some students may experience post-traumatic stress, fixating on the incident and expressing constant fear that it will happen again. One student may withdraw, while another may fear being left alone. Reactions can be physical as well, including changes in appetite and sleep patterns.

Children and teens who live in neighborhoods plagued by chronic community violence face emotional consequences that are equally serious, but distinct from those associated with nonrecurring, acute incidents.

Multiple and ongoing exposures to violence can lead to what the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child describes as “toxic stress.” Like a disease attacking the immune system, toxic stress erodes resiliency and, without adequate relief, may cause enduring harm. It can translate into internalized mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, or externalized behaviors such as disobedience, aggression or relational hypersensitivity.

University of Chicago professor Dexter Voisin and other sociologists have found that while many students in high-crime areas develop coping strategies to navigate the dangers, their sense of safety is constantly under siege. Adult reassurances about protection often ring hollow.

Jaspreet Singh photo profile
Jaspreet Singh at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wis. (Photography by Corey Hengen)

 

The Path to Recovery

Recovery is a long and winding path for students who have experienced community violence, but one of the first steps is a return to familiar routines.

“I think of it as finding a new normal,” says Kennedy-Paine, who also serves as co-chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ National Emergency Assistance Team (NEAT). “Children will always have visions and flashbacks that can’t be erased,” she adds. “It’s a matter of learning how to integrate the experiences and return to being functional.”

After the shooting incident that killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, some Newtown, Conn., family members questioned whether students would be ready to return to classes after the holidays. But Superintendent Janet Robinson—a former school psychologist—sent out a carefully crafted letter outlining why reestablishing routines (with resources in place to support recovery) was the healthier course of action.

“Schools are where children typically spend the largest part of their day. They receive much needed support from teachers and staff members, and it is often the center of the child’s natural support system, their friends. Reestablishing routines following any disaster has been found to promote resiliency while also reducing the negative effects of a tragedy like that which occurred in our school. We all find safety and predictability in our routines, and children are no different.”

In settings with chronic community violence—where students have less opportunity to heal from traumatic experiences—reestablishing routine isn’t enough. It’s vital that schools provide support resources on an ongoing basis. “It isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap, but having a sufficient number of counselors and psychologists is essential in these schools,” says Kennedy-Paine.

Psychological First Aid

Psychological First Aid (PFA) frameworks, like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “Listen, Protect, Connect—Model & Teach” program, can help educators promote healing in the face of community violence.

 

Step 1 LISTEN

Teachers or staff should facilitate opportunities for students to share their experiences and understanding of what happened, and also express their feelings. Younger children may be encouraged to draw, perhaps with an indirect prompt to avoid introducing unpleasant thoughts that a child may not have, suggests clinical psychotherapist Marlene Husson.

 

Step 2 PROTECT

Adults should work to reestablish students’ feelings of physical and emotional safety. Returning to regular school and classroom routines can contribute to this. School staff can advise students and families to avoid news coverage, violent films and other stimuli that may trigger children.

 

Step 3 CONNECT

As needed, teachers and staff can encourage students to reestablish normal social connections, both in and out of school. Self-isolating is one of the common reactions to trauma. If this behavior lasts beyond an expected period, it may suggest the need for intervention.

 

Step 4 MODEL

At home and at school, students look for behavioral cues from adults they respect and trust. Adults in the school community should model calm and optimistic behavior. This sets an example and sends the signal that, as anxious or sad as students may feel, it is necessary and possible to carry on.

 

Step 5 TEACH

Psychologists, social workers or counselors can present information to students and parents about common reactions to stress, which may include changes in appetite and sleep patterns, as well as temporary difficulties with concentration and memory. These professionals can also reinforce the idea that seeking help is admirable, not something to shy away from.

Healing Together

Schools can lead the way to healing after community violence by promoting a positive school climate that helps build or rebuild resilience in students and the school community. With training, teachers and other staff can learn to model healthy coping skills for their students and to be guides when feelings become overwhelming.

Community and school projects can bring people together to heal and create something forward-looking out of the ashes. For Jaspreet Singh and Oak Creek, that project took the form of a garden. School social worker Timmer worked with students and members of the community to reclaim a large planter in front of the high school that had become overgrown. They went to work weeding, digging and planting, creating a diversity garden dedicated to the shooting victims.

At the dedication, Singh read a poem she had written for the occasion:

Although it took the tragic day of August 5, 2012 to strengthen our community,
 step by step,
day by day,
we are bonding closer.
To unite,
to protect,
to celebrate,
and to represent.  

Find organizations and resources that support students affected by community violence. 

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