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Schools prepare for student grief, questions on Monday

Chris Kirsten hugs his 3rd-grade daughter after she finished her day May Watts Elementrary School Naperville Friday December 14 2012

Chris Kirsten hugs his 3rd-grade daughter after she finished her day at May Watts Elementrary School in Naperville on Friday, December 14, 2012 after a shooter killed 27 people in Connecticut, including 20 children in a school. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 17, 2013 6:34AM



Naperville resident Danielle Palm couldn’t keep her eyes off her phone as she waited for her child to be dismissed from school Friday afternoon.

“Even though it’s my friend’s co-worker’s niece, it’s still a child,” Palm said.

That child, a little girl, is a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 27 people — including 20 children — were killed Friday morning. As of Friday afternoon, the girl’s parents still hadn’t been able to find their daughter, Palm said.

“I can’t imagine not knowing,” she said. “It’s torture.”

Palm lined up half an hour early in front of May Watts Elementary School in Naperville to pick up her own child, a first-grader, but she said she still didn’t know what to say to him. “At 6 years old, I just don’t know what he would understand,” Palm said.

Before the students were let out, sadness and fear lined the faces of local parents as they waited in cars or standing on the lawn of the elementary school.

“Horror. I was horrified and just so sad listening to it on NPR,” said Debbie Pace, picking up her grandchildren. “And then I got angry. What kind of moron with a gun could do something like this? I think we just need to pray for all of them.”

But when the children streaked out of the school building, they were largely oblivious to the terror that unfolded. On the walks home, conversations between parents and children turned instead to homework, scoldings about unzipped jackets, and the excitement of just one week until Christmas break.

“No, he’s 5 years old,” said Michele Smith, about whether she planned to tell her son about the day’s events. “I have a 9-year-old, too. I’m not going to tell him either. I’m going to keep the TV off today.”

Former elementary school principal, Yorkville educator and grief counselor Deb Harding agreed that keeping the TV off is a good thing.

Harding said that while working with young children after the 2001 terror attacks, it was hard for them to separate what they were seeing on television from reality. A million planes weren’t crashing into a million different buildings, even if that’s how the repeated clips made it seem.

If children are left to watch the news unsupervised, “it’s going to be hard for them to realize that this is an isolated incident.”

Harding said it is important to answer only the questions children are asking, and to not give them more information than they need.

“Reassure them that they are safe, and tell them how much they are loved,” she said.

Parents will grieve, too

Harding expects Friday’s tragedy to affect adults just as much or more than kids.

“Parents in a way are needier than the children right now,” she said. “Parents have to realize that even though they did not live by the school, they are still going through the stages of grief.”

Parents flocked to Facebook with their stories of distress on Friday. Some admitted to shedding tears as they heard the news.

“I have been crying all morning watching CNN while the count keeps getting bigger and bigger,” said Kimberly Urso-Petry of Oswego. “My heart is very heavy. I have two kids in elementary school. I wanted to go pick them up (from school on Friday).”

Somonauk Superintendent Dawn Green said there was a noticeable increase in parents picking up their students Friday afternoon. She said there was not an announcement made at the district’s schools, but administrators were meeting after school Friday to discuss a plan for Monday.

Marianna Pantelin-Zdravkovic of Pingree Grove cried through most of the workday Friday, following the events in Connecticut as the news unfolded online.

Her first thought was to leave work and pick up her son, a second-grader at Gary D. Wright Elementary School in Hampshire. Pantelin-Zdravkovic said she knows the security in Carpentersville-based Community Unit School District 300 is “great,” and the doors in the elementary school stay locked. But she said her nerves were still on edge.

“Your faith is tested because these are innocent lives. When there are children involved, it just opens your eyes to the fact it could happen anywhere, anytime, and this truly could have been your child,” she said.

Handle with care

In St. Charles, school district spokesman Jim Blaney said the district is encouraging parents — not teachers — to talk to their kids about Friday’s tragic events.

“Especially with young children, parents would rather handle it at home, and we certainly respect that,” Blaney said.

But school administrators are also realistic. In an age of instant information and smartphones, kids may know about the Connecticut tragedy.

All Fox Valley schools said that if students express concern because of something going on in the outside world, they have counselors on hand. West Aurora school district administrators sent parents a list of crisis team member contacts on Friday afternoon, and encouraged those struggling with the tragedy to reach out if they feel the need.

“Explain that all feelings are OK when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately,” Superintendent Jim Rydland said. “Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them.”

On Aurora’s East Side, district spokesman Clayton Muhammad said administrators will use the tragedy as a learning opportunity.

“We are encouraging this to be a family time, a teaching time, a learning time,” he said.

Administrators at the Geneva, Kaneland and Batavia School districts came together Friday afternoon to react to the shooting as a team.

“We’re not telling people how to parent, but in these difficult times we need to remind everyone how best to work with a child,” Batavia Superintendent Jack Barshinger said.

Yorkville Superintendent Scott Wakeley said the district’s counselors and social workers will be on hand at the schools to help students cope.

“They’re going to see a lot of images and hear a lot of things that they may not understand — especially the younger kids,” he said. “They may just need an extra person to talk to, like a teacher, to ensure them that they’re safe in school.”

Wakeley said the district will wait to decide whether they’ll address in school on Monday.

“If we had school (the next day), it would be more of an immediate response to make sure that we’re saying something to kids,” Wakeley said. “But if we find we have a lot of anxious kids, we’ll certainly take any step necessary to make sure the kids feel safe.”

Staff writer Emily McFarlan Miller contribiuted to this story.



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