Three months after the Uvalde, Texas, murderous rampage at Robb Elementary that took the lives of 19 precious students and two amazing teachers, parents across the country are still nervous as a new school year kicks into gear.
A new study from Qualtrix found that only 31% of parents feel their children are “very safe” at school, KATV-ABC reported Friday. And their kids aren’t far behind them.
“It’s really understandable after a tragedy like [Uvalde], that parents would be apprehensive and afraid,” said Dr. Robert Cuyler from Freespira. “One thing that’s characteristic of anxiety is that people are really frightened of uncertainty and they expect that the worst can happen. It’s really important to remember that gaining a sense of control, information and support is really critical for parents to help their kids make this transition back into the school year.”
Cuyler says that anxiety can be “contagious.”
Ochsner Health reported, “‘Kids often don’t share the same fear and anxiety that parents may have, and they’re really going to school as normal,’ psychologist Dr. Courtney Gunn, Ph.D., says. ‘But keep in mind that kids pick up on their parent’s anxiety. So, if parents are worried, kids can feel anxious and go to school with those kinds of fears.’
“Dr. Gunn says parents can be reluctant to speak to their children about high-profile news stories involving violence and public safety. But if parents feel their children’s age and level of understanding are appropriate, they should be willing to talk, she says.
“‘Have those conversations because your kids see what’s going on around them. They see the world. They see what’s being said on social media,’ she says. ‘They’re not blind to what’s going on, and when you avoid those conversations, it can actually make them more anxious.'”
Gunn says that when children engage in productive, mature conversations about challenging topics with their own families, “they’re more likely to have that same kind of conversation with their peers at school.”
Johns Hopkins Children’s Center psychologist Erika Chiappini, who specializes in the treatment of childhood anxiety and related disorders at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, said that there are several easy ways to tell when a child’s anxiety is cause for concern. Red flags that indicate a child’s anxiety is causing a great deal of distress include:
- Tantrums when separating from parents or caregivers to attend school
- Difficulty getting along with family members or friends
- Avoidance of normal activities in and outside of school
- Symptoms such as stomachaches, fatigue, difficulty sleeping alone
First, I regretfully need to say that many of the fears of parents and children are unfortunately warranted because most schools across the U.S. have little to no security or a safety plan in place, despite the increase in mass shootings over the decades.
In 2018, the Cato Institute reported: “Schools have been the second-highest risk location. FBI data show that the largest number of active shooting incidents from 2000 to 2016 were in workplaces and other commercial buildings [like restaurants] (43%), followed by education facilities (22%), then open spaces (13%), government buildings (11%), residences (5%), health care facilities (3%) and houses of worship (4%).”
What would you do if someone kept breaking into your house? What would you do if someone kept threatening – even worse killing – your loved ones inside when they weren’t expecting it? What would you do? You would do whatever is necessary to protect them, right? At very least, you would likely start by bolstering and further safeguarding your entrances, right?
We as a country need to do what Israel did: the Holy Land mandated armed guards at the entrances to all schools in 1995, and those guards are backed by local law enforcement and special police forces. Despite that these school defenses are primarily intended to thwart terrorists, they also deter any would-be criminals who would cause harm to children.
Israeli schools have only suffered from two shootings in the past 50 years: one in 1974 (22 children and three adults) and another in 2008 (eight youth).
True, Israel has fewer guns per capita than the U.S., but it’s also a tiny country with virtually no opportunity for hunting or other recreational use of firearms. Anti-gun advocates love to point out that there are only about 500,000 weapons that are privately owned in Israel, but that’s in a country (area) that is only about one-fifteenth the size of California or one-twenty-fifth the size of Texas. (To read more about Israel’s exemplary model, please read my article, “Israel: America’s model for reducing violent crime”)
Thirty-two years ago, in 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., introduced the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 into the Senate that prohibited “any unauthorized individual from knowingly possessing a loaded or unsecured firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.” It was passed by Congress and signed by President George H.W. Bush.
How has it helped? The evidence is very clear. Ninety-eight percent of U.S. public mass shootings occur in gun-free zones, according to the Crime Prevention Resource Center.
If I were the president or a member of Congress, I would work immediately to repeal the Gun-Free School Zones Act, to free local communities to better protect their children. But, in almost half the states of our union, we don’t need to wait for Washington or our state capitols to bring about needed change to protect our kids.
As even NBC News had to confess, “The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 prohibits anyone from having a firearm in a school zone. But that law includes the same exception recognized [in 17 U.S. states]: It doesn’t apply if the weapons are ‘approved by a school in the school zone.'”
I’m sure many would be surprised right now to learn that 17 states allow adults or teachers to carry a loaded gun on school grounds, generally provided that they have written permission from a principal or the school board.
Those 17 states include:
- Alabama (which bans possessing a weapon on school grounds only if the carrier has “intent to do bodily harm”)
- Connecticut (with approval of “school officials”)
- Hawaii (no specific law)
- Idaho (with school trustees’ approval)
- Iowa (with “authorization”)
- Kentucky (with school board approval)
- Massachusetts (with approval of the school board or principal)
- Mississippi (with school board approval)
- Montana (with school trustees’ permission)
- New Hampshire (ban applies only to pupils, not adults)
- New Jersey (with approval from the school’s “governing officer”)
- New York (with the school’s approval)
- Oregon (with school board approval)
- Rhode Island (with a state concealed weapons permit)
- Texas (with the school’s permission)
- Utah (with approval of the “responsible school administrator”)
- Wyoming (as long as it’s not concealed)
California was included on the above list until Jan. 1, 2018, when liberal Gov. Jerry Brown enacted AB 424, which removed the superintendents’ rights to approve someone carrying a concealed gun on campus. So, what this means is that California schools have just made it easier for gun-wielding sociopaths to commit mass murder at schools. Unbelievable!
I’m not advocating here that every teacher or coach carry or obtain a concealed permit, though 81% of U.S. law enforcement personnel think teachers and principals should be carrying. I’m simply advocating here that we start the journey out of this national black hole of campus bullets by immediately working in every community and state to post visible active guards at the front of every school every weekday. They are called “school resource officers” (SROs).
Did you know the federal government will even help you acquire and fund SROs at your school? (Yes, I realize I just used the words “government” and “help” in the same sentence!) After reading this column, go immediately to https://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools. The COPS Office supports safe schools by providing grant funds, technical assistance and resources to help deploy school resource officers (SROs). Learn more about SROs and all of their projects and resources that support school safety.
I couldn’t encourage parents enough to sit with school administration and share their specific concerns about school security and safety. If they don’t have security, demand it, and go up as high in the chain of command to get it. Offer your help (your time, talents and even treasures) to establish and execute a better safety and security plan for kids, especially if the inevitable happens.
What else can parents and children do to reduce their kids and their own anxiety and worry until better safety plans are in place? Lots of good practical things, like reducing other types of stresses while seeking better security.
Dallas Licensed Professional Counselor Gina Bolanos, who has worked in the mental health field for 20 years, had some great recommended that parents offer problem-solving and role-playing scenarios with their kids. Such activities should also include emotional preparedness:
Emotional preparedness (Coping skills)
- Academic stress: Academic planning (agenda), Tutoring, Homework Coaching, Set achievable goals.
- Social stress (social conﬂict, making friends): Problem-solving, Role playing social scenarios.
- Performance-based stress: Like with academic stress, set achievable goals and discuss how problems or challenges can be addressed (if they arise).
- Adjusting to transition stress (new school, etc.): Visit School, teachers. Talk through what to expect. Use visuals (calendars) to prepare for upcoming dates.
- Low Motivation: Incentives, Rewards systems. Examples: a special breakfast on the ﬁrst day of school, a special bedtime story, family game night after the ﬁrst day of school, a play date after the ﬁrst week of school, etc.
Dr. Mary Alvord and the American Psychological Association added this great advice:
- Practice the first day of school routine: Getting into a sleep routine before the first week of school will aide in easing the shock of waking up early. Organizing things at home – backpack, binder, lunchbox or cafeteria money – will help make the first morning go smoothly. Having healthy, yet kid-friendly lunches will help keep them energized throughout the day. Also, walking through the building and visiting your child’s locker and classroom will help ease anxiety of the unknown.
- Get to know your neighbors: If your child is starting a new school, walk around your block and get to know the neighborhood children. Try and set up a play date, or, for an older child, find out where neighborhood kids might go to safely hang out, like the community pool, recreation center or park. [Check into neighboring church youth groups and the great support they offer as well.]
- Talk to your child: Asking your children about their fears or worries about going back to school will help them share their burden. Inquire as to what they liked about their previous school or grade and see how those positives can be incorporated into their new experience.
- Empathize with your children: Change can be difficult, but also exciting. Let your children know that you are aware of what they’re going through and that you will be there to help them in the process. Nerves are normal, but highlight that not everything that is different is necessarily bad. It is important to encourage your children to face their fears instead of falling in to the trap of encouraging avoidance.
- Get involved and ask for help: Knowledge of the school and the community will better equip you to understand your child’s surroundings and the transition he or she is undergoing. Meeting members of your community and school will foster support for both you and your child. If you feel the stress of the school year is too much for you and your child to handle on your own, seeking expert advice from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, will help you better manage and cope.
In the end, if your child continues to be distressed by anxiety, remember the advice of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center psychologist Erika Chiappini.
Dr. Chiappini concludes, “If after the first month or so, your child continues to show distress around school that is not improving or if the child’s symptoms are worsening, it may be time to seek an evaluation from a [cognitive behavioral therapist], psychologist or psychiatrist. Consulting a mental health professional can help children and parents understand the child’s symptoms and work together on resolving them.”
Working together is key to helping our children. Whatever you do, fight for them. They are yours and our future.
Even though our own kids are adults now, we are passionate about securing all I wrote here for our grandkids as well. In addition, my wife, Gena, and I have also made it our life mission to help kids in middle school across Texas overcome worries, anxieties and fears through our Kickstart Kids Foundation. Kickstart Kids’ purpose is to build a strong moral character in our youth through the martial arts. Our goal is to help raise self-esteem and instill discipline and respect that so many children are lacking today.
Most of all, don’t forget to remind your kids and grandkids what America’s founders declared: that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Studies from Columbia University show that people who are religious are less likely to suffer from anxiety, depression or exhaustion, according to Dr Roxane Gervais, a psychologist at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Stockport, England. Dr. Gervais says this is so because spirituality offers a “buffer against strains” of modern life.
Remember, even as a parent, you always stand taller when you are on your knees. (Here are six ways for students and parents to practice their faith while managing a busy schedule.)
It’s time to stop waiting for someone else to get it done. It’s time to quit believing it couldn’t happen at your school. Safety doesn’t happen by accident. In my estimation, there is no greater warrior and patriot than one that protects a child.
So, please go to https://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools, and check out how the COPS Office supports safe schools by providing grant funds, technical assistance, and resources to help deploy school resource officers (SROs) in your school. In so doing, you could save a child’s life and save your school from becoming the next Uvalde.
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