By Amy R. Smith
I would like to express my deepest sympathies to the friends and families of those lost during the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. December 14, 2012, is a day we will not forget. Although we have become all too familiar with tragic events resulting in loss of life in our communities and schools, this event was different. The difference was best summed up in a comment I received that day from another school psychologist: “This was personal.” This unthinkable tragedy was even more impactful on our community because it resulted in the death of fellow school psychologist and NASP member, Mary Sherlach.
By all accounts, Mary Sherlach was a dedicated, valued, and respected member of her school community. She had been the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary for 18 years and was considering retiring in 2013. Her page on the Newtown Public School District website outlined her many roles within her school, offering services and involvement in the type of team and committee work that many of us do every day. From media reports, it would appear that Mary lost her life trying to protect the students and staff in her school.
Each time we learn of school-associated crisis events, we are all likely to experience some degree of anxiety. Typically, this anxiety is associated with the thought: “How will I help my students cope with this kind of tragedy?” Because during the events at Sandy Hook we lost a fellow school psychologist, many experienced the additional anxiety surrounding concerns over our personal safety. This may have been in no small part due to the realization that many of us would follow Mary's brave example and, to protect our children, put ourselves in harm's way. As we face these feelings, it is important to restate what we all often tell others who have anxiety about school safety: We all work in very safe environments.
Regarding any anxiety we might have about how we help others cope with this tragedy, let me share with you some of the guidance I have received from our NASP school crisis response and intervention experts. First, it is critical that children know the adults in their lives are ready and willing to talk to them about this event. We can also continue to reassure children that schools are very safe places. What happened at Sandy Hook was horrible and tragic beyond words; however, it was extraordinarily rare and most unlikely to occur at our school. We can help our students understand the difference between possible and probable, likely and unlikely.
Another essential piece of guidance is to carefully monitor students' media access, including social media. Instead of helping students to be more informed about the event, excessive viewing of media may result in them being more anxious. Encourage children and teens to participate in their normal routines and ask them to turn off their computers and put away their cell phones. If an older student insists on viewing the news reports, strive to watch them with him or her and talk about what you are viewing.
And finally, like many in the days following the event, I struggled to come to terms with the tragic loss of so many young children and grieved for the families of all who were lost. Immediately following this event, it was not surprising to hear fellow school psychologists report being very upset. An important lesson I hope we can take away from this tragedy is that if we are to take care of our students, schools, and communities, we need to first take care of ourselves. We need to monitor our own reactions, avoid excessive media viewing, seek help when necessary, and remain in control of our own emotions when helping others.
And so, as we move forward, I want to remind you about some specific resources. Continue to visit the NASP website for talking points and tip sheets covering a wide variety of timely topics. NASP is here to serve as a resource and source of information for you as you provide your expertise to students, schools, families, and communities. Connect with other school psychologists locally, on the NASP Communities, or on the NASP Facebook page to share your feelings and concerns. Utilize our “Care for Caregivers” resource for support for yourself. Please take advantage of the professional tools and supports available to you and feel free to share them with others.
Thank you for being your community's resource, thank you for supporting children everywhere during this crisis, and most of all, thank you for being there for your schools. I never had the opportunity to meet Mary Sherlach. But I believe our profession is made up of many like her: dedicated professionals who seek to improve the lives of their students and who, if necessary, would most likely do what she did—instinctively and selflessly try to protect them.
Amy R. Smith is the president of the National Association of School Psychologists