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As the country learned in horror Friday that a gunman killed 27 people, including 20 small children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., an inevitable question crossed the minds of Utah parents and many students: Could it happen here?
School officials in the state's largest districts tried to offer some measure of reassurance that safety precautions are in place should a crisis strike. They also weighed in on the difficult subject of how to broach the topic of the tragedy in Connecticut with kids who may be traumatized about learning what happened to peers on the East Coast.
Utah experts said parents should try to reassure their children about safety in the wake of Friday's news, if a child asks about the events.
"When something goes wrong, children think: What did I do?" Bonnie Peters, executive director of Family Support Center in Salt Lake City, said Friday. "Tell them it was nothing the [Connecticut] kids did and nothing the teachers did. It was something that person did, who was very sick."
Peters, a licensed clinical social worker, said there are several ways parents can help young children feel safe, with one component being to let kids know what their plans are for daily routines. Parents need to let children know they know what time they're going to school and getting home; that they know their teachers; and that those teachers are looking out for any strangers, so everyone is working to make school a safe place, Peters said.
"Let them know: Staff is going to be very aware when strangers are coming to the school, and they will be stopped and questioned," she said.
Jennifer Toomer-Cook, a spokeswoman for Canyons School District, said the district held a drill in June involving 300 officials, students, and law enforcement officers to practice responding to a potential shooter. The Alta High School drill, aimed at planning, preparing and protecting students, involved about 300 people and helped the district learn how to improve emergency response plans.
Jason Olsen, spokesman for the Salt Lake City School District, said the district hosts a section about safety and dealing with crisis on its website, http://www.slcschools.org/departments/student-services/Crisis.php">http://www.slcschools.org/departments/student-services/Crisis.php, where parents can visit to learn more about the district's plans and tips for talking with children about safety concerns.
Those tips include encouraging parents that it's alright to tell children that they can't explain why an incident happened.
"Stick to facts – don't fill in details that are not known; don't try to explain the unexplainable. Know that is O.K. to say, "I don't know." - "This is all we know right now." It's O.K. not to have the answers," the site states.
"Validate your child's thoughts and feelings. Ask them what they think and what they are feeling. When children ask questions, answer the questions as honestly and directly as possible. Keep your answers short and to the point."
In the Alpine School District, prayers took place at some schools for the shooting victims and their families. Episodes like the one in Connecticut always spark new conversation among school administrators on how to develop the best safety procedures, said district spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley.
"We are reassuring staff members, students and parents that we have emergency procedures in place to keep students and employees safe in our school facilities," she said in a statement. "Because of this tragedy, we are on a heightened awareness level when it comes to safety. We will continue to review emergency procedures district wide to ensure safety."
"We are praying for school officials, family and community members involved in the shooting in Connecticut," added Bromley.
Elizabeth Sollis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services, said the state sponsors a crisis line that anyone struggling with emotions connected to the shooting can contact. Information about the crisis lines can be found at http://www.dsamh.utah.gov/crisis.htm.
"Incidents such as these often incite high emotions and post traumatic stress disorder, thus, it is important for people to have/be aware of community resources," Sollis said in an email.
School officials also tried to emphasize that the majority of schools remain safe places.
The percentage of youth homicides that occurred at U.S. schools last year was less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"Help kids realize that they're safe at home and going to be OK," Peters said. "Tell them: We've taught you to lock the door and if things don't look right, tell us."
A vigil was planned for 6:30 p.m. Friday on the steps of the State Capitol in Salt Lake City to mourn those killed in the shooting.
Gov. Gary Herbert on Friday also ordered all flags on state-owned facilities to be lowered to half staff.
"To those mourning in Connecticut, the people of Utah mourn with you," Herbert said in a statement.
Tips for talking to children about violent events
1. Reassure children that they are safe
2. Make time to talk
3. Keep explanations developmentally appropriate
4. Review safety procedures
5. Observe and monitor a child's emotional state
6. Limit media coverage of these events
7. Maintain a normal routine
Source: Lane Valum, school psychologist coordinator for Canyons School District A place for help
Utah has crisis lines statewide, http://www.dsamh.utah.gov/crisis.htm, should people feel they need to speak with someone about the Connecticut shooting.