In our Back to School series, Mashable tackles the big issues students face, from mental health to representation to respectful communication. Because returning to the classroom is about more than buying school supplies.
My mother has been a teacher for 18 years. This year, her school decided to do something new: install a bulletproof glass entry system.
This doesn’t come as a huge surprise. According to CNN, there have been 22 school shootings this year. To be considered a school shooting in this data, at least one person had to be shot on school property. These shootings have happened all over the country, in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges.
With gun violence in America reaching epidemic levels, parents might feel nervous about sending their children back to school this year. While things like bulletproof glass entry systems may temporarily ease fears, at the end of the day, they serve as bandaid solutions to a much larger problem.
There are practical ways parents can prepare themselves to respond to kids’ worries and help prevent future shootings.
“First, parents need to remember that even with school violence and school shootings being so prevalent in the news, schools are one of the safest places to be in a community,” said Nicole Hockley, mother to Dylan Hockley, who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, an organization focused on reducing gun deaths.
You can also get involved in big and small ways to advocate for increased safety in schools. Here are a few tips to ease the fears you might have when you wave goodbye to your children on their first day.
1. Start at home
Talk to your kids. Speak with them about any potential anxieties they might have. But remember the conversation might change depending on their grade-level. “You have to have conversations that are age appropriate,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, an organization advocating for public safety measures to prevent gun violence. “Young kids aren’t going to be able to process complicated, statistical information. Kids need to feel safe.”
Importantly, you should talk to your children about warning signs of a student who may hurt themselves or others, and what they can do to help. School shooters typically discuss their plans with someone before the event.
“If [kids] see someone eating alone all the time, or who’s withdrawn, go over and introduce yourself and say hello and sit down with them. If someone’s being bullied, then step in or go to a trusted adult and say something so they can take action,” said Hockley. As long as your child feels comfortable or safe, they can get involved in this way.
Sandy Hook Promise released a guide with other signs kids can look out for, including but not limited to: aggressive behavior for a minor reason, low commitment to school, overt violent threats, or an obsession with firearms.
Hockley explained kids should also look out for any classmates who appear to have a fascination with weapons or violence on social media. Sometimes, she added, kids think their peers aren’t being serious when they post this kind of thing on social media, but if they see something suspicious, they should take it seriously.
Still, it’s important to stress to your child that a single warning sign does not mean a person is planning an act of violence. Instead, tell them many warning signs over a period of time could mean the person is heading in the direction of violence or self-harm.
If your child sees anyone exhibiting these kinds of warning signs, Hockley said they should tell a trusted adult immediately.
2. Practice and advocate for responsible gun storage
Watts explained that irresponsible gun storage can lead to shooters easily accessing guns. According to a 2015 national survey from researchers at Harvard, Columbia, and Northeastern universities, 4.6 million American children live in homes with both locked and unloaded guns.
“Guns need to be locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition,” said Watts.
Through a program called Be SMART, Moms Demand Action educates parents on how to talk about this issue with their school districts and school boards. The campaign encourages parents and other adults to practice gun safety through an easy-to-remember acronym that corresponds to each piece of advice: Secure all guns in your homes and vehicles; Model responsible behavior around guns; Ask about unsecured guns in other homes; Recognize the role of guns in suicide; Tell your peers to Be SMART.
To that end, you should talk to your friends, family, and the people in your community about the importance of responsible gun storage. “That is something that we partner with the PTA on and talk about in school districts with school boards and educators,” said Watts.
If you’d like to make sure this message gets delivered in your community, volunteers all over the country are available to deliver a 20-minute presentation called “Be SMART: A conversation about kids, guns and safety” to local groups and organizations. You can sign up through the Be SMART homepage to learn more.
3. Rethink active shooter drills
At this point, active shooter drills are commonplace in schools. But while they may seem like a good way to prepare for a school shooting, they actually might do more harm than good.
“Kids are anxious enough about gun violence in their schools,” said Watts. What’s more, studies on the effectiveness of active-shooter drills are nearly impossible, according to the Atlantic.
On the other hand, lockdowns may produce anxiety and stress in students and staff, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. “Our recommendation is that children do not endure them,” said Watts.
Hockley agreed, explaining “lockdown drills are a reactive solution.”
Instead of active shooter drills, schools can establish intervention programs that work to prevent violence from happening. For example, released a research-based report that advises schools to implement threat assessment programs, which help educators understand and take action if a student is a risk to themself or others. They also advise putting in security upgrades that make it harder for intruders to gain access to schools.
For its part, Sandy Hook Promise advocates for “proactive prevention,” which Hockley explains is meant to stop violence before it occurs. You can encourage your school administrators to implement some of Sandy Hook Promise’s “Know the Signs” violence prevention programs, or sign up for the organization’s in-person or digital trainings.
If your child will be going through an active shooter drill, you should ask the school board what exactly your child will have to do in the drill and whether the school has considered the drills’ mental health effects. At the very least, ask whether the drills follow the National Association of School Resource Officers’ guide. This guide uses traditional lockdowns as a foundation for the drills, but utilizes discussion-based exercises before moving to physical exercises like walk-throughs and crisis simulation. If simulations or props are used, the guide also advises the school tell participants beforehand.
4. Get involved
If you want to start advocating for systematic change, there are plenty of ways you can get involved. Joining organizations like Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise can be a good place to start.
“We have a chapter in every state, and local groups in cities. We address this issue on several fronts, legislatively, electorally, culturally,” said Watts. Anyone who wants to get involved can text ACT to 64433, which points you to Moms Demand Action’s event page. Here, you can choose a nearby event to attend, like monthly meetings for your town’s chapter, fundraising events, or demonstrations.
At Sandy Hook Promise, you can volunteer or sign up to begin advocating for change.”We can give you information to help either talk to your kid or to bring our free programs to your school,” said Hockley. You can also sign petitions or condolence cards to send out after a shooting. “Super-Volunteers” or “Promise Leaders” encourage their local schools to share Sandy Hook Promise’s message, like spreading awareness of the “Know the Signs” programs.
“School is a place of community and academics,” said Hockley. “It’s not all about violence. But if parents empower their kids with the knowledge and tools of how to help their friends and help themselves, that’s a big confidence builder.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the at 741-741 or call the at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a of international resources.