Shootings at Connecticut elementary school leave Routt County parents, school officials in disbelief |

Shootings at Connecticut elementary school leave Routt County parents, school officials in disbelief

Dan Brabec picks up his 5-year-old daughter

How to talk to children about tragedy

• Encourage children to talk about their concerns and to express their feelings. Some children may be hesitant to initiate such conversation, so you may want to prompt them by asking whether they feel safe at school. When talking with younger children, remember to talk on their level. For example, they may not understand the term “violence” but can talk to you about being afraid of a classmate who is mean to them.

• Talk honestly about your own feelings regarding school violence. It is important for children to recognize they are not dealing with their fears alone.

• Validate the child’s feelings. Do not minimize a child’s concerns. Let him or her know that serious school violence is not common, which is why these incidents attract so much media attention. Stress that schools are safe places. In fact, recent studies have shown that schools are more secure now than ever before.

• Empower children to take action regarding school safety. Encourage them to report specific incidents (such as bullying, threats or talk of suicide) and to develop problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills. Encourage older children to actively participate in student-run, anti-violence programs.

• Discuss the safety procedures that are in place at your child’s school. Explain why visitors sign in at the principal’s office or certain doors remain locked during the school day. Help your child understand that such precautions are in place to ensure his or her safety and stress the importance of adhering to school rules and policies.

• Create safety plans with your child. Help identify which adults (a friendly secretary, trusted teacher or approachable administrator) your child can talk to if they feel threatened at school. Also ensure that your child knows how to reach you (or another family member or friend) in case of crisis during the school day. Remind your child that he or she can talk to you anytime they feel threatened.

• Recognize behavior that may indicate your child is concerned about returning to school. Younger children may react to school violence by not wanting to attend school or participate in school-based activities. Teens and adolescents may minimize their concerns outwardly but may become argumentative, withdrawn or allow their school performance to decline.

• Keep the dialogue going and make school safety a common topic in family discussions rather than just a response to an immediate crisis. Open dialogue will encourage children to share their concerns.

Source: National Mental Health Association

Dan Brabec picks up his 5-year-old daughter, Haley, from Strawberry Park Elementary School on Friday. "I don't know how we've gotten to the point where it's even an option for someone to do something like that. It's really scary, to be honest," Brabec said when asked about the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Friday.
Matt Stensland

— Routt County parents were hugging their kids a little tighter as school let out Friday afternoon, when details still were being released about the tragic elementary school shootings in Connecticut.

"I can't imagine what makes a person do something like that," said Dan Brabec, who was picking up his 5-year-old daughter at Strawberry Park Elementary School. "I don't know how we've gotten to the point where it's even an option for someone to do something like that. It's really scary, to be honest."

When school let out Friday, most of Routt County's elementary school students likely had not heard about 20-year-old Adam Lanza opening fire in two classrooms at a school where his mother worked. Lanza later committed suicide, bringing the death toll to 28, of which 20 were children, according to The Associated Press.

School officials in South Routt, Hayden and Steamboat Springs chose not to tell their students about the tragedy.

"We felt it was better coming from family rather than a mass announcement," Strawberry Park Principal Tracy Stoddard said. "That would scare them."

Many teachers, though, had heard about the shootings.

"I have a kid here, and I definitely went out at lunch and gave her a hug," Strawberry Park teacher Anna White said.

Steamboat and Hayden schools emailed and sent letters home to parents about the incident. Some parents called asking for advice on how to talk to their children. Steamboat parents were told to take note that every child responds differently to grief.

"If your child appears to have unresolved feelings that come up as a result of learning about this tragedy, you can help your child by listening carefully, not overreacting, validating his/her feelings and answering questions according to your beliefs," the letter states. "'I don’t know' is an answer, too."

Counselors will be available in the school districts Monday to offer help to students who need it.

"I definitely don't think it's something our kids should have to deal with, but it's obviously reality," Brabec said.

Keeping kids safe

School security is discussed regularly at Routt County school districts, but school officials said there is only so much that can be done to keep kids safe.

"The best you can do is to just keep preparing and to keep it in the forefront of your minds," South Routt School District Superintendent Scott Mader said. "We do keep certain doors locked. We do have certain check-in procedures. Unfortunately, almost anything you do can't prevent something from happening if someone is determined to do something."

The sentiment was shared by Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks.

"How do you prevent something like this?" he asked.

Schools try to be prepared should an incident take place.

All Routt County school districts have plans in place for emergency situations, and staff practice drills such as those where the schools are locked down.

"It's hard to answer all the 'what ifs, what ifs,' but we try to brainstorm scenarios," Hayden Valley Elementary School Principal Rhonda Sweetser said.

Sweetser said that she met with staff members Friday to review safety procedures and that they would be doing so again Monday.

South Routt Elementary School Principal Raylene Olinger also plans to meet with staff members Monday.

"I think the procedures we have in place are good ones," Olinger said. "This certainly heightens our awareness."

At both elementary schools and at the middle school in Steamboat Springs, anyone entering through the front doors of the buildings has to be buzzed through before entering the school. It is a valuable security feature that officials in South Routt and Hayden have talked about putting in place, but it costs money.

"I'm sure that's going to be a discussion that we're going to have," Sweetser said.

In the immediate future, many local parents and school officials will be digesting the most recent school shooting.

“My heart goes out to the people in that community,” Olinger said.