My son broke my heart yesterday. He didn’t mean to, but with an innocent question— a plea for reassurance from a son to his mother—he did.
Somehow, as kids do, he found out about the horrible, unspeakable tragedy that killed 17 people in a high school in Parkland, Florida. As parents, my husband and I had decided this time not to talk about this particular event at home, to shield our elementary school-age kids. It is too recurrent a theme, too many times a topic on the news, that we thought it was best not to share the terrible tragedy and the pain that comes with it.
Our reasoning was that we already talk about guns and violence, and school lockdowns and drills and other difficult topics in the most educational way possible, always reassuring them, but this killing of children and concert-goers, and other innocent people, is too frequent, too macabre, to normalize it as “There was another school shooting today, pass me the potatoes,” kind of conversation.
But, we were wrong, my son found out anyway, and with that came the questions. “Why? How? I don’t understand.” And worst of all… “Will it happen to me, Mommy? Are you completely, 100-percent, cross-your-heart-sure, it will never happen to me, Mommy?”
I couldn’t answer immediately. My throat closed, tears started to slowly cascade down my cheeks — the images of the tragedy too recent, the testimonies of the survivors still in my mind. After a few seconds, I realized my son was still staring at me, not comprehending my reaction. “No, this will never happen to you or your friends. You are safe, I am sure,” I said.
But, can I honestly, 100-percent be sure it will never happen to him? No — and I can’t stop thinking about it.
I’m sure the parents of the 14 kids killed in Parkland thought it would never happen to them. I’m sure, like me now, they saw that happening as a distant impossibility. But, it happened, and I realized, I hadn’t been honest with my son. I can’t be sure…the truth is I’m afraid, I’m devastated for those who died, I’m heart-broken that my son needs to be reassured he’ll be okay at school and also, I am angry. My head and my heart a tangle of emotions that I haven’t been able to stop feeling.
What is wrong with us if something so fundamental as the simple routine to say good-bye to our kids in the morning when they leave to school can become a final, devastating farewell?
What is wrong with us that we can’t right this undeniable, categorical, indisputable evil after many years of tragedies and “thoughts and prayers?”
I know that for schools across the country, students’ safety is their number one priority. I know that. Riverhead Central School District Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez sent a letter to parents this week reassuring them of precisely that and detailing the measures the district has in place.
“Following the tragic and unthinkable act of violence that occurred in Florida earlier this week, our thoughts and condolences are extended to the families and friends fo the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” Henriquez wrote.
“Our schools are equipped with a comprehensive crisis plan to guide us through a variety of emergency situations, should the need arise,” she said and added that “With the assistance of local law enforcement, these plans are reviewed annually and updated as needed.”
She also included a list of guidelines from the National Association of School Psychologists with resources on what to do and how to help kids deal with such devastating news.
Other school districts on the East End have also sent out similar messages.
Hampton Bays School District tweeted “#WeAreHB and our support goes to the victims in FL tonight. The safety and well-being of students is the top priority. As you send your children to school tomorrow, our staff is ready to love & care for them. If we can further support you in this tough time, please contact us.”
But as a parent, I say we can do more than just trust our schools will keep our children safe.
We are the partners they need to ensure that happens. We want to make sure they’ll have a good education, we want to make sure they will not be bullied, we want to make sure they are happy… well, we first have to make sure, they will never face a madman with a gun in schools, or in a concert, or in a movie theater, or anywhere.
Growing up in Europe in a country where guns are only seen on T.V., it has taken me a long time to comprehend America’s relationship with guns. But, you know what? I honestly don’t care anymore about which side of the debate you’re on regarding guns—you love them, you hate them. In the end, it’s all the same….People. Are. Dying. Period. What are we going to do about it?
When Sandy Hook happened my son was five, almost the same age as the little kids that died that day. He is almost eleven now. I wept that day for Newtown, as I weep this week for Parkland. What has changed since then policy-wise? Nothing. But hundreds if not thousands are dead because of gun violence.
We have to act. We have to be our children’s keepers, our neighbor’s keepers, our future’s keepers.
An interview I watched recently on TV made me think like nothing else could. Nicole Hockley, mother of Dylan, one of the little kids murdered in 2012, is one of the founders and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, a national non-profit that looks to “honor all victims of gun violence (…) by providing programs and practices that protect children and prevent senseless, tragic loss of life.”
She has made it her life’s mission to stop this crisis. Through her pain she outlined a series of tools that are being proposed and that we should all be familiar with.
“Guns are not going away. But arming more people, or teachers, is not the solution either,” she said, her voice breaking.
This is what we should know as parents if we want to see change:
The STOP School Violence Act, a bill that was introduced in the House last month and that looks to give states the funding they need for violence prevention programs in schools.
Extreme Risk Protection Orders: These are state laws that allow families and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is documented evidence that an individual is threatening harm to themselves or others, according to the nonprofit organization the Brady Campaign. Currently Connecticut, California Washington and Oregon passed laws to include these. Democrats in New York introduced a series of gun control measures in the State Senate earlier this month that include extreme risk protection orders.
Know the Warning Signs: According to the National Association of Mental Illness, in adolescents or adults “trying to tell the difference between what expected behaviors are and what might be the signs of a mental illness isn’t always easy,” but there are common signs of mental illness that we can identify and teach others to identify. Here’s a complete list.
Organizations and Groups: Familiarize yourself, and if you can, donate, to reputable groups and organizations that are actively working to prevent gun violence. Some of these include: Sandy Hook Promise, the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Politics: How are your federal and state representatives voting on this issue? What is their record? Reach out to them and let them know you want to see change.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer: 631-753-0978
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: 631-249-2825
Rep. Lee Zeldin, First Congressional District: 631-289-1097
State Senator Ken LaValle: 631-473-1461
Assembly Member Anthony Palumbo (Second District-includes Riverhead and North Fork): 631-727-0204
Assembly Member Fred Thiele (First District- includes Riverside, Flanders and South Fork): (631) 537-2583
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