A superintendent in one of the three California communities that’s been the site of a mass shooting since the start of last week shared specific tips with parents on discussing gun violence with their children, and advised them not to avoid discussing the topic.
The community letter from Superintendent Denise Jaramillo of the Alhambra Unified School District came barely a day after a gunman opened fire Saturday night at a dance studio in Monterey Park, a Los Angeles-area community served by the Alhambra district, killing 11 people during a Lunar New Year celebration. The district sent the letter just hours before another mass shooting rocked the state. On Monday, a man shot and killed seven farm workers at two locations in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. A week before, on Jan. 16, six people were killed at a home in Goshen in central California.
These kinds of shootings can spark fear and anxiety among students and adults alike, whose sense of safety is repeatedly thrown into question. Parents and educators face the challenge of helping children process a traumatic event while attempting to do the same for themselves.
“Each of us at Alhambra Unified School District join in the shock, outrage, and profound sorrow over the violence and deaths … in Monterey Park, home to many of our families and beloved neighbors,” Jaramillo wrote in her Sunday letter. “In what should be a time of joint celebration for Lunar New Year, we are instead standing ready to help our community with grief and despair.”
Parents need to talk about the mass shooting and gun violence with children in ways that are appropriate for their age, Jaramillo said.
Primarily, parents and guardians should reassure their children that they are protecting them and looking out for their safety, the letter said. For children younger than 12, Jaramillo wrote, the focus should stay on safety and security “rather than long explanations about the social and psychological effects of gun violence erupting in our country.” For older children, adults should emphasize that it is wrong to use a gun to kill someone. Discussions about social, political, and moral issues concerning gun violence could also be helpful, she wrote.
Asking children open-ended questions like, “What have you heard about the event?” and listening to what they have to say helps to create a space where they can speak freely with someone they trust and process their fears, she wrote.
Jaramillo suggested families avoid exposing children to too much media coverage.
“Don’t let the TV do the talking,” she wrote. “...It is up to parents/guardians to explain basic facts, not TV or social media.”
She also suggested taking an “action step” to honor the victims, like putting a flower in a vase or at a public memorial, and making sure students understand gun safety laws. In California, for example, state law requires all guns be safely locked in a lock box or safe. An action step, she said, “helps children and adults cope with grief.”
Signs students are struggling
In a separate message to families on Monday, Jaramillo outlined the steps the district took to prepare for students to return to school, including by asking staff to take time to reflect and process the shooting before turning their focus to students’ needs.
She also urged parents to look out for less obvious signs their children might be struggling to process their emotions. Those could surface in the coming days, weeks, or months, she said, and include an inability to sleep or more sleep than usual, appetite changes, unusual anger, mood swings, disinterest in favorite activities or abrupt changes in communication styles.
“If you see changes in your child’s patterns of behavior, let your child know this is a message from their mind and body that they need to talk about what they are thinking and feeling,” the letter said. “Please let your child’s school know that your child may be suffering without understanding that the behaviors are related to unexpressed fears and anxiety.”
Community reeling after shooting at Iowa education program
This week’s violence hasn’t been limited to California, and it’s something many other communities will be forced to address. The Half Moon Bay shooting on Monday was the sixth mass killing in the U.S. so far this year, according to a tracker maintained by the Associated Press, USA Today, and Northeastern University. The tracker defines a mass killing as the intentional killing of four or more victims.
Jaramillo’s tips—which align with guidance from organizations like the American School Counselor Association and National Association of School Psychologists—could be helpful for other communities left to deal with the aftermath of gun violence, including Des Moines, Iowa, where two students were killed and an adult was seriously injured Monday in a shooting at an educational program for at-risk youth known as Starts Right Here.
“This is a tremendously painful time for our entire Starts Right Here community, as our sole focus is to help at-risk youth reach their full potential,” the program’s board of directors wrote in a news release, the Des Moines Register reported. “These actions are contrary to all that we stand for and point out more must be done. These two students had hope and a future that will never be realized. We can no longer say this type of violence doesn’t happen in Des Moines. Sadly, it does.”
The Starts Right Here shooting is the sixth school shooting this year and the first fatal one, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker. In 2022, there were 51 school shootings that resulted in injuries or deaths, the most in a single year since Education Week began tracking such incidents in 2018.
Other tips for districts from professional organizations include:
- Providing students with examples of school safety measures, such as exterior doors being locked.
- Helping students vet sources of information and understand what reliable sources are.
- Talking about the role that students play in maintaining school safety by reporting strangers on campus and potential threats made by peers or community members.
- Developing activities that help students surface their feelings if they’re not comfortable talking about them, such as drawing or writing.