Keeping Students Safe

As eighth-grader Jack Hurley and his friend, Chris Muhlenkamp, walked down their tree-lined Pleasant Hill street on their way to school, each took turns checking behind them. They were looking for a beat-up gray car driven by a gray-haired man with a mustache who had become known as “the Creeper” – a suspect who tried to abduct a middle school student a mile from their homes the day before.


After the attempted abduction, families throughout the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in the East Bay received a call from the superintendent outlining what happened and what steps parents should take to keep children safe. Over the next few days, reports came in of additional suspicious characters seen outside other East Bay schools, adding to the fear among parents and students.


It was one of a rash of several unnerving events that had occurred at Bay Area schools this fall. A drive-by shooting at Deer Valley High School caused a lockdown of all Antioch School District campuses. Across the bay, two pipe bombs were detonated by a former student on the Hillsdale High School campus in San Mateo. All this was happening at the same time the Jaycee Dugard kidnapping case was saturating local news, leading both kids and their parents to confront their worst fears.


Students who would normally be enjoying the first weeks of the new school year were suddenly uncomfortable, as they texted alerts, walked in groups to school and kept a watchful eye out for suspicious behavior.


So what can parents do to ease their child’s fears about safety without adding to their anxiety?  Child development experts say the most important thing for parents to do is to stay calm.


Quiet the Chatter


“Parents naturally reduce stress by talking with their friends, but they should avoid discussing their own fears in front of their children,” says Berkeley behavioral pediatrician Joan Lovett, author of Small Wonders: Healing Childhood Trauma with EMDR (Simon & Schuster, 1999). “It’s important for parents to listen and, if possible, to give reassurance by telling kids what’s going to happen to keep them safe.”


San Francisco psychologist Ilene Diamond adds that while it is important to discuss dangers and teach safety behaviors in an age-appropriate way, it is important to project a sense of calm rather than panic when doing so, so that your child can take in the information and feel  confident that he or she knows what to do in a given situation.


Talk About What Went Right


“In the case of the near abduction (in the East Bay), fortunately that child was taught correctly and he used his good common sense,” Lovett says. “After the explosions at the San Mateo campus, no one was hurt, and people are now super-aware and prepared. Point out as well as the trauma what’s being done to help, and normalize what they’re feeling if they’re sad or angry.”


Keep Information to a Minimum


Douglas Styles, clinical director of Youth and Family Enrichment Services in San Carlos, says parents can tend to give too much information that can add to a child’s anxiety. “It’s very challenging. What parents most need to do is be attentive and listen as much as possible,” he says. “The hardest part is for parents to answer questions at a level the child can understand.”


According to a report by the NYU Child Study Center, media coverage of traumatic events is often exhaustive, as in the Jaycee Dugard case. While the news can provide children and parents with valuable information, exposure to repeated coverage of traumatic events can have negative effects on some children.


If younger children are hearing news on TV or the car radio, provide the facts without getting caught up in media sensationalism. Tell them what’s true and what isn’t.


“TV news and movies feed their already anxious imaginations,” Lovett says. “For years after the Polly Klaas kidnapping, I saw children (in my practice) who were terrified of being abducted from home.”


While parents shouldn’t pretend that these things can’t happen, they can explain that these are the exceptions rather than the rule.


“With all of the horrible stories and news on all the time, this type of repetitive, sensational coverage is not good for anyone’s anxiety,” Diamond says. “If you’re noticing your child exhibiting anxious behavior, turn off the TV or radio, listen to music and share some family time.”


Give Age-appropriate Advice


For older kids, Styles says it’s fine to bring up school safety as a topic. “You might say, ‘There’s been a lot of talk about stuff at schools. What do you think about that?’”


For younger children, however, Styles suggests listening to their questions and answering in ways that boost their sense of security and confidence. Talk to them about how to be safe. Continue to monitor them for signs of anxiety in their comments, play or behavior. If a child is directly involved in a trauma, Lovett says, they should be treated immediately.


For the majority of parents, however, the best approach can begin by simply remembering the three Cs: comfort, conversation and commitment.


“Routines help children feel safe: eat, sleep, play,” Lovett says. “Give comfort in the form of routines. Give hugs, share meals, increase friends and family time.”


Diamond agrees. “Building an everyday foundation of consistent routines for such things as meals, homework, playtime, family time and bedtime will help your child stay grounded and feel more secure when out-of-the-ordinary stressful or traumatic situations occur.”


Finally, commit by setting a good example. “Participate in your child’s school and in school activities,” adds Lovett.


While many children will reach out to parents, others – especially older kids – might keep to themselves. Looking for changes in behavior can alert you if your child needs help.


“Younger kids who are anxious may even exhibit clinging or regressive behavior to elicit caregiving behaviors by the parent,” adds Diamond. “Look for any kind of behavioral change. Is a child eating?  Are they losing weight?  Do they have insomnia?  So many teens seem so adult and mature, and may not seem like they need that reassurance. It’s important that those kids get hugs and reassurance, too.”


For Hurley (who now always walks with friends to and from school), safety comes down to a simple statement:  “Always think ahead, and always watch your back.”


Jennifer Wake is a frequent contributor to Bay Area Parent and the mother of two elementary-age boys.




School Smarts


Here are some tips for keeping kids safe to and from school:

  • Always have older children walk with a friend, and make sure younger children have adult supervision to and from school.
  •  Have children avoid walking in isolated areas and keep aware of surroundings.
  •  Identify “safe places” on the route to school that children can go if they’re being followed or need help.
  •  Wait with children or arrange supervision at bus stops.
  •  If any adult makes a child feel uncomfortable or confused, tell them to immediately get away from the adult and to tell a parent or trusted adult.
  •  Don’t have children wear items of clothing or backpacks with their names on them.
  •  Tell children to kick, scream and resist if anyone tries to grab them.
  •  If a person in a car is following them, have children turn around and return from the direction they came to find a trusted adult to tell.
  •  Teach children to check with you first before going anywhere with anyone, or before changing plans before or after school. Always have them tell you where they are going.
  •  Finally, have children carry an emergency contact card (hidden from view) with your name and phone numbers on it.


Source: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “Know the Rules . . . for Going to and from School More Safely.”
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