By Lauren Anderson
On a recent morning, officer Allen Herrmann toured schools in a central Maryland district — his presence a reassuring symbol of safety in the days after the massacre of students and teachers in an elementary school halfway across the country.
“My day was spent going from school to school, visiting staff, being visible, walking through the cafeteria, letting the kids and the parents see us,” said Herrmann, a police officer of 32 years who serves as a school resource officer for Frederick County Public Schools. “Everybody is just horrified by what happened. Everybody is just trying to put their brains together to figure out why something like this happens and what we can do.”
Shaken by the attack on Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, parents across the country are desperate for reassurance that their children are safe in their schools. School leaders — public and parochial alike — are reexamining the sufficiency of their safety protocols amid reports of the missteps that led to the death of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde.
“I think that people are hurting across the country, as more and more of the details from Uvalde come to light,” said the Rev. David Madison, executive director-elect of the National Association of Episcopal Schools. “Whenever a tragedy like this occurs, first and foremost, our school leaders are focused on tending to the safety and welfare of the community. Regardless of where they are located, these events take an enormous emotional toll on both the adults and the students in all schools.”
As political debates over gun control are stoked once again, some Christians are considering how their faith compels them to foster a safer society for young people.
The Rev. Dr. Chip Prehn, an Episcopal priest and educational consultant, said horrific incidents of violence prompt big theological questions (Why does God allow such evil to happen?) and questions about the Church’s role in addressing violence.
“As a priest and as an educator, I reflect on two things: Number one, I reflect on the reality of evil. We live in a dangerous world. Let’s not forget that. Let’s not forget wickedness and evil people really do exist,” Prehn said. “But the other reflection I have as an educator is what did this young man [the gunman] not get? What are we … supposed to be giving young America in terms of its formation and education?”
Media reports often describe perpetrators as “troubled,” “loners,” or “angry,” Prehn said. Somewhere along the way, the people around them missed the warning signs, or saw them and failed to intervene. Adults must pay attention and act when they notice those signals, Prehn said.
The Rev. Dr. David Jones, an Austin-based Presbyterian minister with a Th.D. in clinical pastoral counseling, agrees that a more robust system for reporting is needed. “If you see something, say something” may be a common adage, but often people’s proclivity is to stay silent, he said.
“We have to create best practices that emphasize the importance of creating culture in both schools and society where we pay attention … where we know the importance of reporting. I think our tendency now is not to report, not to say things,” Jones said, adding that schools need professional counselors who are trained to identify the signs of potential danger.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and national conversations about police overreach have prompted some districts in recent years to reconsider existing partnerships with local law enforcement, now is the time for public schools to invest in school resource officers, Herrmann said.
“In this day and age, with everything going on with social media and everything else, I think it’s good to have a certified law officer in the high schools and middle schools, if possible,” he said. “These kids deserve to have a safe environment, and it helps to have us here.”
Jones was on the frontline of counselors who responded in late May to the immediate emotional and psychological trauma of Uvalde residents after the school shooting.
When he heard of the need for mental-health professionals and clergy, he drove to the city to make himself available to anyone who needed to talk.
“I just thought, I just need to go down there, so that’s what I did,” Jones said. “I put on my collar and sat around, and people came up to me and wanted to talk.”
The first night after he arrived at the city’s civic center, Jones was approached by a 9-year-old Robb Elementary student and her mother. Jones learned the young girl had hidden in the school during the May 25 slaughter, while the gunman opened fire in a nearby classroom.
“She said she can’t sleep at night; she was afraid the guy was going to come back,” Jones said. “She was traumatized; she had no life in her eyes. She had what we call a flat affect.”
The girl slowly began to show more emotion through the course of their hours-long conversation.
“I asked, ‘Would it be OK if I pray with you?’ and I put my hand on her head, and she grabbed me and hugged me and tucked her head on my shoulder and asked, ‘Can I talk to you tomorrow?’” Jones said.
Whether speaking to a child who has been directly harmed by trauma or attempting to discuss harrowing events with a child, Jones said adults must tailor their conversations to the child’s developmental stage.
“You have to think of where that child is,” Jones said. Children process things much more slowly than adults. … We just need to slow down. They need to mull it over it, chew on it, and process it in ways that are different than adults. … Answer their questions honestly. Don’t fudge over questions from children, but the caveat is don’t elaborate. Don’t tell them more than they need to know.”
Just as adults wrestle with questions of good and evil in the wake of tragedy, so do children. While it may be tempting to answer a child’s theological questions thoroughly, Jones said adults should keep their answers brief.
Above all, the role of the Church is to remind young people that they are safe, Prehn said.
“You hug them, you remind them of God’s love. You tell them and repeat to them that they are safe. ‘You are safe. You should not fear. You are safe,’” he said.
In Episcopal schools, chaplains play an important role in promoting the emotional safety of children, Madison said.
“The chaplains in our schools have been especially focused on the emotional well-being of students in light of the shooting and the terrifying images that parents and students are seeing alike,” he said. “Chaplains are uniquely equipped to deliver pastoral care in the face of tragic events like these. It can take many different forms, based on the age of the student as well as the individual needs that are presented.”
Madison said safety is routinely reported as a central reason for parents choosing Episcopal schools for their children, but systemic changes are needed to ensure students are protected.
“We offer our continued prayer, but we also recognize that prayer should inform action,” Madison said. “Tragically, we have yet to see substantive action take place at the national level, and school shootings continue. In the meantime, we continue to provide resources for our schools relating to pastoral care for our communities, and conversations around life safety in light of these horrific events.”
As well as providing additional pastoral care in the wake of tragedies, Madison said parishes can partner with schools by engaging in conversations about campus access.
“That can set the stage for creating an environment that is both welcoming and also safe for students,” he said. “Parishes and schools share a common mission. However, the specifics of how they live that mission out in a safe way can be different.”
In troubling times, the work of the Church remains unchanged and as important as it ever was, Prehn said.
“Certainly, we have to go on witnessing to the resurrection and telling people that the gospel is true and that sin is real and that God loves us anyway,” he said. “We have to continue to tell people about the love of God in situations like this. What else is there that’s more true?”
Lauren Anderson is an associate editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee. Prehn is a member of the board of directors of the Living Church Foundation, Inc.