How parents, schools, and community work to keep children feeling safe after high-profile acts of violence
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:35 a.m. on Tuesday, June 14, to reflect where Celine Wicks was living at the time of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Twice a day, when school is in session, Principal Celine Wicks and custodial staff walk the exterior of Strawberry Park Elementary making sure all the entrances are locked and secure.
Keeping students safe is critical to Wicks, and the morning after the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, she shared with her staff for the first time why the issue touches her so deeply. Wicks grew up 10 minutes from Newtown, Connecticut, so during the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she had friends who lost their children in that violent act.
“We learned in the past that this can happen anywhere,” Wicks said. “Uvalde opened people’s eyes for sure.”
After the shooting in Uvalde, a city slightly larger than Steamboat Springs, many local parents hugged their children a little bit harder. Parents also reached out to school staff with questions.
“Some parents need to know our policies and procedures and to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to keep kids safe,” Wicks said. “Other parents want to be on the front line to make change.”
Wicks sent an email to parents of Strawberry Park students on May 25 that included links to articles such as “Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers” from the National Association of School Psychologists, or NASP.
“We completely understand how you are feeling as families: frightened, scared, angry, concerned,” Wicks’ email noted. “The range of emotions will continue to evolve as we process another unthinkable tragedy in our lives. We recognize we have students who are at various ages and are not able to process information in the same way. As the day goes on, we will listen to children, comfort them and support them based on individual needs. Our counseling team is prepared to assist students and families whenever needed.”
Although kindergarten students at Strawberry Park were not asking about the situation in Uvalde, the fourth and fifth graders were asking questions, Wicks said. School counselors visited the classrooms of older elementary students to discuss feelings and concerns at age-appropriate levels.
High-profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved ones are at risk, according to the NASP.
Health care providers are seeing heightened anxiety in children that increased during the COVID-19 pandemic and may become elevated after news of school shootings, explained Dr. Kathy Sigda, a licensed clinical psychologist who provides mental health services to children at UCHealth Mountain Crest Behavioral Health in Fort Collins.
For school leaders, Sigda suggested that lockdown drills be normalized in a similar manner as evacuation drills. Teachers can inform students about a variety of reasons a lockdown drill may be needed.
Children look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents should calm themselves first before talking about tragic events with children.
“Children tend to soak in adults’ feelings about events in the news,” Sigda said.
For younger children, parents and teachers should comfort and reassure students they are safe. Young children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that adults are helping their schools and homes be safe.
Television viewing of tragic events should be avoided for young children because developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion.
Children may not be able to verbalize their anxiety, but they may start exhibiting behaviors such as not wanting to go to sleep at night, not wanting to get up, not wanting to go to school or acting out at school, Sigda said. Young children may need concrete activities such as imaginative play to help them identify and express their feelings.
Schools and law enforcement in Routt County use two national training programs for safety instruction and resources. The I Love U Guys Foundation is used for schools, and the FBI training Run, Hide, Fight is used for businesses.
The standard response protocol from the I Love U Guys Foundation from 2021 includes five specific actions: Hold, Secure, Lockdown, Evacuate and Shelter.
I Love U Guys protocols are taught consistently across local schools, Routt County Undersheriff Doug Scherar said, but teachers can adapt the information as various situations or age of students may dictate.
“From the sheriff’s point of view, school safety is absolutely the top priority to us,” Scherar said. “The amount of these types of situations (school and mass shootings) that are continuing to happen in the U.S. are out of control.”
Each year, law enforcement officials in Routt, Moffat and Grand counties conduct an active shooter exercise together at a school building. In addition, sheriff and police officers, including assigned school resource officers, train staff at schools, engage with students and staff, and patrol the schools.
After Uvalde, officials at Steamboat Springs High School requested additional patrols, Steamboat Springs Police Chief Sherry Burlingame said.
In addition to monthly evacuation drills, school staff are required by law to conduct lockdown drills four times each school year. For kindergarten to third-grade students, the lockdown training is conducted in a “more gentle” manner, Wicks said. Younger students are instructed, “We have to practice these things just in case something bad is happening in the school and we need to keep you safe,” Wicks explained.
With community concerns and heightened sensitivity following the tragedy in Uvalde, the sheriff’s office and police departments in Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Oak Creek note they are available to conduct free walk-through security assessments at local facilities. After Uvalde, more Routt County residents reached out to request safety assessments at churches, day care centers, preschools and nonprofits, Scherar and Burlingame noted.
Security at every building is different, Scherar said, but his common suggestion is for employees to be aware of their surroundings. If something seems out of place or strange, report it to law enforcement, he said.
“If you see someone who you think is acting out of the norm, you need to pay attention to that,” Burlingame said.
Wicks said parents have a role to play by staying involved in schools and following school security measures, such as always entering via the front desk, signing in and wearing assigned visitor badges.
“Together, we will remain vigilant and will do everything in our power to keep students safe,” Wicks said.
Shelby DeWolfe, Steamboat Springs School District behavioral health coordinator, said it’s important to provide space for school-aged children to talk about their feelings and share what they are thinking.
“The best way to determine how much information they need is to listen, really listen to them,” DeWolfe said. “Before we can offer reassurance and help them with their feelings, we have to understand what their actual concerns are.”
Middle school students may be mature enough to watch the news with parents and discuss the issues together, but each child is different.
“Be honest without overwhelming (them) with too much information,” Sigda said.
High school students, and some upper middle school students, may have strong and varying opinions and concerns. Adults should watch the news together with older students and “process it out loud together,” Sigda advised.
Adults can emphasize the important roles that students have in following school safety guidelines, communicating safety concerns to school administrators and requesting support for emotional needs.
Adults should be patient with children of all ages because children may not want to talk about their feelings. Parents can watch for clues that children may want to talk, such as hovering around adults during chores.
The psychologist added that adults can help children feel empowered during anxious times through serving and giving back to a cause in the community that they care about.
“Being able to talk to a trusted adult about this is the first step in being able to cope with their feelings and adjust to their new understanding of the world,” DeWolfe said. “We cannot protect kids from knowing about school shootings, but we can be there for them to talk about it in a safe way, which is the biggest counter to anxiety.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.