Advice from psychologist who lived through 1997 school shooting: Make your kids feel safe

Meghan Goth
Meghan Goth
Meghan Goth is LINK nky's managing editor. Email her at [email protected]

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Alan Mullins was in his office when he got the call that someone had fired shots at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky in December 1997.

It was 7:42 a.m.

The school psychologist’s office wasn’t at the high school, but he made it there before 8 a.m.

Three students were killed and five others were shot.

As the nation reels from another school shooting — this time at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas where 19 children and two adults were killed Tuesday — LINK nky talked to Mullins about how he supported students that 1997 day and how schools and parents can support their own children now.

The scene was chaotic, said Mullins, who is now a psychologist with Boone County Schools. His first priority was to help the school staff stay organized and present mentally so that they could focus on the students.

“We had close to 600 students,” Mullins said. The goal was “to keep them in a spot where they could process together that we are going to be safe, we are going to be OK, the shooter has been taken care of.”

That, he said, took several hours, after which he focused on getting direct mental assistance to the staff at the school so they could process what they had been through.

“I felt my role as a psychologist was basically to spearhead trying to get the entire student body through the immediate crisis and the days that followed,” Mullins said. “And then long term as far as trying to get them to put their lives back into a place closer to normality, which disappeared that day.”

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One thing he emphasized with the students was to make sure they knew that while this event was completely abnormal, their emotional reactions to it were not.

The approach with how to help kids process is different depending on age, so with elementary age kids, Mullins recommends making sure the children know that they are OK.

“The monsters aren’t going to come back and get you,” Mullins said.

Other advice Mullins has for parents of young kids in the aftermath of Tuesday’s shooting:

  • Try to remember that emphasizing safety is the first priority in every conversation you have with your kids. Let your children know they are safe.
  • Try to get youngers to understand in an age appropriate way that the emotional reactions they are going to have are normal.

In terms of emotional reactions, Mullins suggests giving kids an idea of when to expect some reactions or responses.

“As an example,” Mullins said, “If kids hear police sirens or fire sirens going off they will probably have a different reaction today than they would have had days ago. It’s important to let young people know that’s normal for your senses to be heightened for those kinds of things.”

Some strategies to give kids who are processing a school shooting: step back, breathe deeply, take in your immediate environment and reassure yourself that you’re safe.

This is a time when talking to your kids is the most important thing you can do, Mullins said.

“These are times when our children need us the most,” Mullins said. “They need us to be present in their lives. But then also open up and engage in conversation. That’s hard for some parents, but to try to open up about whether your kids have ever felt unsafe at school and how to help them feel safer.” 

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