Finding the Balance Again

Melissa Kossler Dutton

In light of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., parents might be wishing for increased police patrols, armed guards and bullet-proof glass at their children's schools.

But experts say that parents need to realize their children may not share their desires.

As parents and community leaders work to improve school safety, they need to make sure that their efforts to increase their own comfort levels do not create unnecessary anxiety in their children, said Chuck Archer, a research psychologist with the Zanesville City Schools and past president of the Ohio School Psychologists Association.

"What is sometimes comforting to adults is more fearful to a child," Archer said.

Concerned parents can work to make their communities safer without causing undue alarm for their kids, he said.

Stepping up to assist also may help parents better deal with unsettling emotions the Newtown tragedy may have caused, added Kevin Arnold, a Columbus psychologist. It's understandable that some parents still feel worried about their children when they send them to school, Arnold said.

He recommends parents "look for ways to turn the stress into motivation to help."

Start by asking questions, said Julie Davis, executive director of the Ohio Association of Elementary Administrators in Columbus.

Speaking with the school principal can help parents gain a better understanding of what processes are in place to address school violence, she said. It also can lead to opportunities to work with the school to develop new solutions, Davis added.

Many schools are likely to be forming committees or initiating discussions about the issue, said Sue Owen, executive director of Ohio PTA in Columbus. Parents who want to help shape the response should volunteer to be a part of the conversation, she said.

"We need to collaborate," Owen said. "Everybody has a vested interest in keeping the children safe."

We asked Archer, Arnold, Davis and Owen for suggestions of proactive steps parents can take to help their schools become safer and reduce their anxieties about sending their children to school. Here is what they recommended:

Parent action: Schedule a time to discuss school safety with your building administrator.

How it can help: The conversation will provide an opportunity for you to address any safety concerns you have.

Parent action: Ask to see the school's safety protocols or offer to serve on a committee that will create or update them. The Ohio Department of Education encourages districts to create a network of support that will work together to develop and implement procedures that address a variety of crisis situations.

How it can help: Knowing that the school has a plan in place to address emergencies - and understanding the details of it - can provide a greater sense of security.

Parent action: Find out if the school needs volunteers to implement safety precautions.

How it can help: Offering to staff the office while the secretary goes to lunch or greeting parents in the foyer each morning means more adults are keeping an eye on who is entering the building.

Parent action: Be active at school.

How it can help: Spending time at school will create a familiarity with the building and its staff, which should decrease anxiety about sending children there.

Parent action: Develop relationships with teachers and school personnel.

How it can help: Leaving children in the hands of someone you trust is easier than putting them in the hands of a stranger.

Parent action: Ask the adult staff (not your child) questions about lockdown drills.

How it can help: Parents may be reassured to know that children are being coached on how to handle a variety of emergency situations.

Parent action: Join a parent-teacher organization.

How it can help: These organizations are a place where safety will be discussed. They also can influence school districts and administrators.

Parent action: When sending a child to a new school building, summer day camp or other new place, arrange to visit the facility in advance or interview the person in charge about their safety procedures.

How it can help: Sending children to a new place may trigger feelings of anxiety in parents. Addressing safety concerns before the camp or school starts can ease the anxiety.

What to do if you find yourself dwelling on the potential dangers:

*Talk to other people about what you're feeling.

*Take a break from the media coverage.

*Balance your perspective. Realize that what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School is the exception, not the rule.

*Look for ways to be proactive.

*Talk to a professional if you cannot move past your worries.

Source: Kevin Arnold