Familiar shockwaves rang through the country last Tuesday as the news broke of a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
The death count in the second-deadliest elementary school shooting: 19 students dead, plus two teachers.
As officials from Chatham County Schools grappled with the tragedy, they knew local attention would quickly turn to them. Parents quickly began asking: What are schools doing to make sure their children are safe? What protocols are in place if this were to happen at their children’s schools? Do the schools even have an adequate safety plan?
In recent days, Assistant Superintendent for Operations Chris Blice has attempted to answer these questions.
“I’ve had calls this morning about bulletproof glass; I’ve had calls about new classroom door locks,” Blice told the News + Record. “It really is not about buying stuff; it’s about training adults to know what to do and create muscle memory.”
While official school safety plans are confidential, he said the district has participated in additional conversations with principals and the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office since last Tuesday’s tragedy.
“Any time there’s an incident in a school, we dissect it and make adjustments,” Blice said. “We are in the process of evaluating what has happened in Texas as information becomes available.”
Blice said there have been no formal adjustments to the policies so far, but conversations with principals and school safety officers have included important “reminders” about the protocols currently in place.
Since he took over the role in 2013, Blice has made several adjustments to school safety policy, including enlisting the help of Risk and Strategic Management Corporation — a Virginia-based company which creates safety plans for institutions and corporations — in providing an updated written safety plan.
“We take this very seriously and we constantly review our plans,” Blice said. “Every time something like what happened in Texas happens, we tear our plans apart and make more adjustments.”
Blice wouldn’t provide details about any adjustments made in the past week or from previous school shootings, but Chatham County Schools issued a statement Wednesday regarding the Uvalde shooting.
“Our hearts go out to all of those grieving the loss of at least 19 students and two adults following Tuesday’s shootings in Uvalde, Texas,” the statement said. “Safety is always a priority within our schools. We monitor safety on our grounds through multiple channels. We regularly review our safety protocols, policies and technology, and provide staff training. The most recent review of safety procedures was conducted this fall. The district and the Sheriff’s Office have a strong partnership, as well, with the goal of keeping our students and staff safe.”
Blice said the solutions to these safety problems and school shootings are imperfect. In Charlotte, the police department has already advised families to “not be alarmed” due to increased police presence around Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary schools following the Uvalde shooting. When asked if Chatham County would consider something similar, Blice said that had not yet been discussed, but doing so comes with its own consequences.
“Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to this,” Blice said. “If there was, we would already have it all over America. There is not a school district in America that wants this to happen.”
The assistant superintendent said CCS continues to pay close attention to school security by consulting experts and community partners. He said even after last week’s events, he maintains the belief that schools are the safest place for young people to be.
Blice said the district hadn’t planned to provide information about the Uvalde shooting to students; doing so would be at the discretion of each school’s principal. If students do feel traumatized by this event, however, schools do have guidance counselors available.
One person advising guidance counselors on how to communicate with both students and parents after events like this is Dr. Karen Barbee. She runs Clinical Director of Renaissance Wellness Services LLC, which provides outpatient mental health services to Chatham, Orange and Wake counties.
Barbee said the best way to talk to young people about traumatic events is to start where they are developmentally.
“Traumas like this shooting can sometimes be above a child’s understanding depending on their age and development,” Barbee said.
She said if students are young and unaware of the events — usually kindergarten through 2nd grade — it may not be best to approach the topic because it can be beyond their comprehension. Teaching them about these events can lead to further trauma if parents aren’t careful.
Barbee said if a child is old enough or already knows about the event, it’s best to put this in the simplest terms possible.
“Tell your child that unfortunately there are bad people in the world and something bad did happen,” Barbee said. “You also want to assure them that they are safe and that the school is doing everything necessary to keep them safe.”
She said it’s best to think of it like an assurance sandwich — you are safe now, a bad thing happened, but you will continue to be safe — two pieces of support with the bad part in the middle.
“You don’t want to leave young people in a traumatic state,” Barbee said.
As children get older, like middle and high school, Barbee said parents shouldn’t tiptoe around serious issues if their children bring them up.
“Teenagers get it; they don’t want to hear sugarcoating, especially when it comes to their safety,” Barbee said. “Be open to conversation and allow your child to process this kind of trauma.”
She said the most important thing parents can do for their child, regardless of age, is provide a safe space for them to process this difficult situation. For more parent resources about how to talk to children after traumatic events, see this week’s edition.
Beyond parents, Barbee said the school needed to take a proactive approach to counseling and mental health services. And the approach needs to serve two-fold: to identify students in need of mental health services, and spot signs of potentially harmful activity.
“The reality is, school shootings are a relatively new phenomenon,” Barbee said. “And all the time we are hearing that these kids who become dangerous fly under the radar.”
Being proactive, she said, means focusing on more than just students with behavioral problems.
“We need to be covering all the bases through screenings and updated prevention strategies,” Barbee said. “We need to be asking ourselves why we are ignoring the signs, and right now I don’t have an answer to that.”
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_rappaport.