Supporting Students Through Tragedies

After high-profile, tragic events, children may feel that they are in danger, or worry that friends and loved ones are at risk. They will often come to families, teachers, and other trusted adults with questions and to find reassurance, but it isn’t always easy to know what to say.

OSPI has gathered resources from experts across the web, including our own laws around school safety, to help inform and guide these conversations. Talking to children about their fears can help alleviate those fears and help young people feel secure.

Tips for Talking to Students

From National Association of School Psychologist’s (NASP) Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers:

  1. Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
  2. Make time to talk. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.
  3. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
  • 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. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
  • Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.
  • Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g., not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

Read more: Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers (nasponline.org)

The NASP has additional information for parents, families, and educators on school safety, violence prevention, children’s trauma reactions, and crisis response at www.nasponline.org.

School Safety in Washington State

Washington state law includes many requirements to keep schools safe. All schools and school districts in Washington are required to have comprehensive school safety plans (sometimes called emergency operations plans) and evidence-based threat assessment programs in place.

As part of their safety plans, schools and school districts are required to have policies and procedures in place for things like:

  • Responding to different kinds of safety incidents,
  • Provisions for assisting and communicating with students and staff, including those who have disabilities,
  • A plan for student-family reunification in an emergency,
  • A specified schedule of safety drills and exercises,
  • Guidelines for meeting with first responders, and more.

In addition, in 2019 through House Bill 1216, the Legislature established regional school safety centers within our state’s nine regional educational service districts, which provide support to school districts within their region. These regional centers are required to support school districts with comprehensive safe school planning, threat assessment, and behavioral health system navigation.

Further, the Legislature also required the creation of a statewide reporting system for individuals in school communities to report suspicious or threatening behavior. This system is being built out by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, and is anticipated to launch in fall 2022.

Finally, many school districts employ school safety and security staff, and the comprehensive legislation passed in 2019 also provided definitions and expectations for those employees, including standardized mandatory training requirements.

View a full list of Washington’s school safety state laws and rules.

Additional Resources

From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Psychological First Aid

The NCTSN also has resources for responders on Psychological First Aid (PFA; En Español). PFA is an early intervention to support children, adolescents, adults, and families impacted by these types of events. PFA Mobile and the PFA Wallet Card (En Español) provide a quick reminder of the core actions. The PFA online training course is also available on the NCTSN Learning Center.

Additional PFA resources for schools include:

From the National Mass Violence and Victimization Resource Center

From the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University

For More Information

OSPI’s School Safety Center team is available to answer any questions that arise about school safety laws in Washington.

Read Superintendent Reykdal’s statement on the devastating shooting on May 24 in a Ulvade, Texas Elementary School.

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The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Led by Supt. Chris Reykdal, OSPI is the primary agency charged with overseeing K–12 education in Washington state.