With kids asking ‘How do I survive?’ this is how a Utah doctor suggests talking about a school shooting

Dr. CJ Powers recommends listening first, validating and trying to comfort kids after Texas tragedy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) West High School students listen to fellow students demand safety after walking out of classes in Salt Lake, during a student walkout on Wed. March 14, 2018, after the Parkland, Fla., shooting. Now, after the shooting in Texas on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, experts are sharing the best way to talk to kids about these tragic events.

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After one shooter drill, Amy Farnsworth remembers her students talking about how there was no place to hide in her fourth grade classroom, with only one door leading in and out. So together, the kids decided they would flip their desks on the sides to use as shields.

During another, she said, one student worked himself into a panic, asking what would happen if he was in the restroom or the hallway or the lunchroom when a shooter came. “What am I supposed to do?” she recalls him asking again and again. “How do I survive?”

Farnsworth has spent 20 years doing these drills in the classroom, where she has taught elementary students throughout Uintah School District and at a charter school. And every time there is another school shooting — including the one where 19 students and 2 teachers were killed in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday — she thinks about the responses she used to hear.

She said it’s hard to watch the nation’s youngest kids growing up with these drills both necessary and commonplace. “I feel like it’s almost a war situation that we have to prepare children for,” she said. “It’s just not right.”

Farnsworth, who left teaching in 2019 and now tutors through her company Vernal Tutoring, said the toll of it all became too much.

Some students worried each time they heard “CODE BLACK” over the intercom, not knowing if it was a drill or if it was real; she often wasn’t told ahead of time, either. Other kids, she said, grew desensitized to it after years of practicing how to react.

Farnsworth started to cry. “You can’t tell a child that no one’s going to come in here. You don’t know that.”

She said she tried to help them process what was happening after the drills. But during the drills, she encouraged the students to stay silent and take it seriously.

Now, she questions whether schools are taking the right approach, what it will take to prevent a shooting and how kids are dealing with the trauma.

It’s the same thing many parents are facing. How do they talk to kids about this? What is the best way to start the conversation?

Dr. CJ Powers, a clinical psychologist at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute, acknowledged that practicing the drills and seeing news of shootings can be traumatic.

This is some of the advice he has for parents and teachers to talk to kids about what is happening.

First: Make sure not to start with your own anxiety

Powers said adults should “check in with themselves first” and address any stress they have.

“Children and teens may not have a clear understanding of the level of danger and will be influenced by an adult’s negative emotions,” he said.

Starting the conversation with your own fear isn’t helpful in this case.

Ask how your child is feeling

If your kid says they’re feeling anxious and scared, listen and try to understand, Powers said. Don’t shut them down.

“Try to validate that it is normal to be anxious when you are worried for your or your friends’ safety,” he added.

He also suggested giving your child context that might help. Talk to them about the safety protocols in place at school, like law enforcement monitoring threats. That might give them some comfort.

[Read more: A Utah lawmaker asked for $100 million for school safety. It’s been funded at 1% of that.]

Powers also said that parents should leave the door open to talk again. That’s important, he said, especially if another school threat or incident occurs.

Watch for signs of distress

Most children, Powers said, are resilient and “unlikely to experience lasting harm from scary and even traumatic events.” But that’s not the case for all.

Sometimes, he said, just learning about a tragedy can trigger depression or other issues in kids.

Parents and teachers should watch for whether a child’s anxiety persists and begins to impair their day-to-day functioning.

Specific symptoms to watch for include:

  • Changes in mood, such as increased sadness.

  • Withdrawing from relationships.

  • Being unusually clingy, refusing to attend school and/or difficulty concentrating.

  • Intrusive and reoccurring worries.

  • Worsening headaches, stomachaches, fatigue and/or restlessness.

“It is also not possible to predict who will be affected by exposure or perceived exposure to a trauma — otherwise perfectly healthy individuals can be taken by surprise when thoughts and worries just won’t go away,” Powers said. “Having intrusive and upsetting thoughts after exposure to a traumatic event is not a sign of weakness. It can happen to anybody.”

Students are generally feeling safer, which is good

Fewer Utah students are reporting feeling unsafe at school, according to the 2021 Utah Adolescent Health Report, which was released Tuesday.

In 2019, 10.9% of students in grades 8, 10 and 12 reported feeling unsafe. That fell to 8.8% in 2021.

Girls felt considerably less safe than boys, though, according to the survey — 11.3% of girls reported feeling unsafe, compared to 6% of boys.

And older students felt safer than younger students — 9.6% of eighth graders said they felt unsafe, compared to 8.7% of sophomores and 7.8% of seniors.

Of jurisdictions, Salt Lake County had the highest rate of those feeling unsafe, at 10.5%.

The study also showed that 19.8% of students in grades 8, 10 and 12 reported they had been bullied on school property in the previous year. That’s down from 2019, when 23.8% of students reported they’d been bullied.

[Read more: Why Utah’s Sen. Kitchen wants to raise the age to buy a gun to 21]

Many schools are offering help

Farnsworth said Uintah School District is making counselors available for students who need to talk. So is Granite School District and others.

The administration at Granite sent a letter to parents Wednesday, reiterating their safety measures, including limiting access to buildings, having more than 5,000 security cameras and employing a districtwide police force.

Any students or employees who are concerned can also access several mental health resources, including therapists.

The letter states: “Please don’t hesitate to communicate directly with your school for any supports your child may need.”

The school district also encouraged students to speak out if they see or hear of a threat, including on social media. They can do so through the popular SafeUT app or by texting 801-664-2929. Parents, the district said, should also be talking to their kids about the importance of reporting.

The district added: “We are a community and need to continue to be vigilant in helping to keep our schools a safe place for learning and growth.”

—Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, chairman of the board of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune, is a member of the Huntsman family, who are the major benefactors of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.