School violence, which was little heard of until the 1999 Columbine, Colorado, school shooting in which 12 students and a teacher were killed and many others wounded, is in the headlines again. Most recently, there have been horrific shootings in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Colorado.
As terrible and frightening as incidents like these are, they are rare. Although it may not seem that way, the rate of crime involving physical harm has been declining at U.S. schools since the early 1990s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fewer than 1% of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds or on the way to and from school. The vast majority of students will never experience violence at school.
Still, it’s natural for kids and teens — no matter where they go to school — to worry about whether this type of incident may someday affect them. How can you help them deal with these fears? Talking with kids about these tragedies, and what they watch or hear about them, will help put frightening information into a more balanced context.
Reaching Out to Your Kids
After an incident of school violence, it’s important for kids to feel like they can share their feelings, and to know that their fears and anxieties are understandable.
Rather than wait for your child to approach you, consider starting the conversation. You can ask what your child understands about these incidents and how they make him or her feel.
Share your own feelings too — during a tragedy, kids may look to adults for their reactions. It helps kids to know that they are not alone in their anxieties. Knowing that their parents have similar feelings will help kids legitimize their own.
At the same time, kids often need parents to help them feel safe. It may help to discuss in concrete terms what you have done and what the school is doing to help protect its students.
What Schools Are Doing
Many schools are taking extra precautions to keep students safe.
Some schools have focused on keeping weapons out by conducting random locker and bag checks, limiting entry and exit points at the school, and keeping the entryways under teacher supervision. Other schools use metal detectors, such as those used in airport security.
Lessons on conflict resolution have also been added to many schools’ courses to help prevent troubled students from resorting to violence. Peer counseling and active peer programs have also helped students become more aware of the signs that a fellow student may be becoming more troubled or violent.
Another thing that helps make schools safer is greater awareness of problems like bullying and discrimination. Many schools now have programs to fight these problems, and teachers and administrators know more about protecting students from violence.
How Kids Perceive the News
Of course, you are not your child’s only source of information about school shootings or other tragic events that receive media attention. Kids are likely to repeatedly encounter news stories or graphic images on television, radio, or the Internet, and such reports can teach them to view the world as a confusing, threatening, or unfriendly place.
Unlike movies or entertainment programs, news is real. But depending on your child’s age or maturity level, he or she may not yet understand the distinctions between fact and fantasy. By the time kids reach 7 or 8, however, what they watch on TV can seem all too real.