Expert advises to ‘strike a balance’ in talking to kids about shootings

Adults need to talk to children about the Connecticut elementary school shooting, but a Minnesota expert advises parents not to offer too much information.

“You have to just strike a balance,” Abi Gewirtz said. “Don’t avoid it, but don’t overwhelm them, either.”

The University of Minnesota professor encouraged parents to “keep on with your routines” and to answer questions about the shooting, which left 20 elementary school students dead.

Parents need not offer a lot of information children do not seek, she said. Parents should not discuss “their own agenda, but what the children’s agenda is.”

Agitated children should not be diverted to a movie or other entertainment, Gewirtz said. Parents should suggest entertainment only after questions are answered.

Minnesota may be 1,200 miles from Sandy Point Elementary School, where the shooting occurred Friday morning, but the impact is strong.

“A child doesn’t understand what 1,200 miles means,” Gewirtz said. “For that child, the incident could be happening down the street.”

With wall-to-wall television coverage, the distance did not mean much to parents, either.

Minnesota schools reported receiving calls from concerned parents.

At the South Washington County district, Communications Director Barb Brown said a number of schools heard from parents regarding the shooting.

The district provided information about its safety policy to parents via email and on the district Website.

Brown said the district has been working on an update to its security policies for about six months, but did not plan any immediate changes in light of the school shooting.

Bemidji school Superintendent Jim Hess assured parents that their children are safe.

“We really go the extra mile when it comes to student safety when it comes to Bemidji area schools,” Hess said. “Our children are safe.”

Hess said the Bemidji School District did not receive any threats made Friday, but he did enact additional safety measures.

“These kinds of tragedies are beyond reason and they just tear at the fiber of our country,” he said. “We just wanted people to be extra vigilant.”

Gewirtz said schools are “incredibly safe places for children,” with a “very small likelihood” of events like the Connecticut shooting.

Gov. Mark Dayton said children, teachers and parents should feel safe.

“This dastardly, cold-blooded murder of innocent children and their educators by a deranged individual shocks Minnesotans,” Dayton said.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the healing process after the Newtown shooting will take months.

“Today, innocent children and educators lost their lives in an unspeakable tragedy,” she said Friday. “When we send our children to school, we expect they will be safe and secure. Nothing is worse than when our confidence is shaken and the safety of a child is put into question.”

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said schools should review their safety policies, and parents should take action, too.

“We also encourage Minnesota parents to take some extra time to talk with their children about what happened,” Dooher said.

Gewirtz, who moved to Minnesota from Connecticut, suggested that parents ask if their children heard about the shootings, and deal with their feelings.

“Listen to your kids, hear their concerns,” she said. “Don’t overwhelm them with your own worries.”

And, she added, parents need to tell only what the child can understand.

“There is such a thing as sharing too much information,” Gewirtz said. “It is important to think about what is appropriate.”

The state Education Department sent schools a sample letter that could be sent to parents.

“Give children time to talk, follow their lead; when they are ready to return to their regular routine, let them,” the letter read. “If they have further concerns, they will probably come back to talk. Let them know they can talk at any time.”

Bethany Wesley of the Bemidji Pioneer and Scott Wente of the South Washington County Bulletin contributed to this story.

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