Are public schools safe?

Dr. Mark Stebnicki, PhD, reflects on the tragedy that took place in Connecticut and offers some advice for the Newtown residents, as well as parents with school-age children here in our community.

The unspeakable acts of violence that have taken place December 14, 2012 in Newtown, CT has created extraordinary traumatic stress beyond comprehension for the parents, family, friends, and community of the victims and survivors of Sandy Hook Elementary school.

The emotional aftershocks of this horrific event bring new meaning to the phrase “school violence.” For the folks in Newtown, this must feel like the terrorist attacks of September 11th or the natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Sandy.

Regardless of how close one is to the epicenter of either human-made or natural large-scale disasters we all grieve the emotional aftershocks of such critical events; even within the ECU community.

It is unfortunate that some of us are continually being exposed and re-traumatized to the Sandy Hook shooting via television and in the print media. How can we possible begin the healing process? At this time, we are seeing “the tip of the iceberg” of this sinking mental, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual Titanic.

As a consequence of December 14th, many parents of adolescents are feeling powerless and have extraordinary fears and anxiety of their own and are likely asking the significant question– Are my children safe in their public school?

The events of December 14th remind me of my own story of being involved in another school shooting that occurred on March 24, 1998 at the Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, AR. It was at this time an 11 and 13 year old shooter took the lives of four children and teacher and injured 15 others. I was a member of the crisis response team in Jonesboro where I lived and taught in the department of Psychology and Counseling at Arkansas State University, Jonesboro. This was an apocalyptic moment for this small quiet southern and very religious/spiritual community.

My son and daughter attended the other middle school across town at the time of the Westside shootings. One of the most difficult issues to deal with as a parent is trying to answer the questions of “Are we safe?” During the time of the Westside shootings I remembered my 10 and 12 year old son and daughter asking me “daddy, is someone going to come to my school and shoot us?” Kids are naturally genuine and direct. Being a trained psychotherapist and having worked in rehabilitation and mental health for many years, I am supposed to have all the answers. But strangely I had to respond NOT as a mental health professional–but as a parent. I myself was feeling a high degree of empathy fatigue engaging in daily therapeutic interactions with the adolescents, parents, staff, and teachers of the Westside community. The most parsimonious, honest, and direct response I could give to my son and daughter is that “we are doing everything we can to make sure that this never happens again.”

I would never say to a Sandy Hook Elementary parent that “I know what you are going through” because I do not live in Newtown.  I can only attest that I lived in a community where another unspeakable act of school violence took place that changed the lives of the children, parents, and community of Jonesboro. Events such as horrific school violence create a type of historical trauma to the local culture; much like slavery, extermination of minority cultures by the majority-dominate culture, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and other extraordinary stressful and traumatic events.

As for the community of Newtown, my most honest and direct response to you is that I am extremely sorry for the losses you have experienced. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to live in this part of America. This horrific tragedy is too much for the rationale or analytical brain to comprehend. So, the only way we can understand this is from the emotional brain which can only being understood by our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual experience. It is okay that you are feeling a range of emotions of anger, extreme sadness, grief, loss, and trying to find meaning in how such a horrific incident could take place on our planet.

Please be open to the idea that this is a normal reaction to an extremely abnormal critical event. As time goes on, you will likely never forget this trauma, but it won’t always feel this intense. Everyone heals at their own rate, they find their own meaning, and discover ways in which to heal. We have the capacity to be resilient beyond our expectations and to live life optimally again. A crisis such as this will certainly test our coping abilities and resiliency skills.

Improving the mental and physical health of children and adolescents is a complex problem that requires a paradigm shift on many levels. Researchers in adolescent mental health and youth risk factors suggest that children and adolescents are targeted and exploited with negative images of sexually graphic material, exposure to violence and abuse against women, children, persons with disabilities, persons that are gay, and many other cultures that are disenfranchised from mainstream America.

Qualitatively, there is evidence that there is a general disrespect for authority and persons that are older. Many epidemiologists would state that the most significant risk factor of youth violence may be living in America. Unless the adolescent resides in the Amish communities of Ohio and Pennsylvania, they have likely been exposed to 26,000 murders on television alone by the time they have reach 18 years of age. More than 85% of high school students by the time they have reached their senior year have drank and experimented with illicit drugs.

Overall, adolescents have been exposed to thousands of other graphic visual images of violence in moves, video games, and on the internet. It is important to consider it is more likely that children will be exposed to childhood obesity, diabetes, teen smoking, teen pregnancy, sexual abuse, substance abuse, pornography, and other acts of violence- at much higher rates than an act of school violence.

This is no comfort to the parents of Newtown today. However, these are issues we will need to address that are at the foundation of our children and adolescents mind, body, and spirit. This is not time to listen to the experts “talk” about school violence and adolescent mental. Rather, this is a time to come together as a culture of compassion, empathy, faith, and hope that we can change the future of youth in our communities.

Dr. Mark Stebnicki, PhD
Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Studies