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How Do Parents Talk With Children About School Shootings Where A School Shooting Has Happened Before

Lower Kuskokwim School District Safety Coordinator Perry Barr addresses parents, school staff, and students at a school safety meeting in the Bethel Regional High School cafeteria on Oct. 10, 2019.
Anna Rose MacArthur

A rumor that no parent wants to hear circulated Bethel last week. The Lower Kuskokwim School District disclosed that it had received a threat of a school shooting in the same high school where, a little over 20 years ago, a shooting took the lives of a student and the school principal. This time, no evidence supporting the threat ever emerged. The situation prompted parents to talk with their children about what to do if a shooting occurred.

Rhonda Phillips heard about the threat last Monday, when her seventh-grader son called her and said, “They found a note about a school shooting that’s going to happen on Thursday, and I don’t want to go to school on Thursday because I don’t want to die.”

Her first reaction was to calm her son down

She remembers telling him: “Are you safe now? Are you comfortable? If you are, then we’ll talk about it at home. The school has their way of taking care of the situation, and we’ll be able to talk about it more tonight when you get home.”

That afternoon, the school district issued a three-sentence email to parents, saying that they had received a threat, but did not have evidence to substantiate it. The email also said that LKSD had asked Bethel police to increase their presence at the school until the investigation finished. Another email to parents that evening advised students to leave backpacks at home, saying that any backpacks brought to school would be searched, and that metal detectors might be used. 

Phillips also has a son in 10th grade. That night, she talked with both her boys about what to do if a shooting occurred, asking them, “Do you know how to defend yourself? Do you know how to hide from somebody? Do you know how to get away? Are you willing to defend yourself? Are you willing to defend your friends if something is happening?”

Andrew Yatchmanoff is also the parent of a 10th grader at Bethel Regional High School. News of the threat prompted him to have his first conversation with his son about school shootings.

“I’ve known it’s happened here before,” Yatchmanoff said. “But I was thinking along the line like the remote chance of it ever happening here again, so I never thought about bringing it up with him.”

Last Monday night, father and son confronted the issue and considered what to do if it did happen again.

“I asked him how he felt,” Yatchmanoff remembered. “He goes, ‘Actually, I feel fine.’ He’s not afraid or anything. So I told him, in case something happens like that, they’ll be locking doors, and where the doors are locked, try not to be in an area where someone walking by can look through a window and see where you’re at. I told him to try and find a safe area to stay, and to listen to the teachers as well.”  

Karen Bayayok was working next door to the high school when the 1997 school shooting occurred. She had talked with her son about that day many times, saying that the shooter was bullied and that her son needed to be kind to people. When this new threat emerged, she used it as an opportunity to teach her son to be careful with his words.

“I always talk with him and make sure that he does not say what comes to his mind right away,” Bayayok said, “to think it out, to make sure he knows if it’s something than an adult should know.”

These were tough conversations between parents and children. Sixteen-year-old Ethan Sundown said that his parents talked about how to keep safe, saying “If this is going to happen, get away from the situation as fast as you can. Don’t try and play the hero.”

Anne Komulainen has two children in Bethel schools. Her message amid the threat and barrage of national  mass shooting reports was: don’t live in fear.

“With everything that’s been going on in our country and with all the shootings,” Komulainen said, “you could end up holing yourself up in your house because of what could possibly happen. But you have to live your life. You’re given one life.”

She let her children decide whether they felt comfortable going to school. On Thursday, the day the threat warned the shooting would occur, her daughter chose to stay home. So did nearly half, or 47%, of the Bethel Regional High School student body. The school excused all absences that week. 

On Thursday evening, parents and school staff gathered for a school safety meeting that had been scheduled weeks before. Many parents said that they were satisfied with how the school handled the threat by increasing security and hindering access to the schools. Others said that the school should have shared resources with parents on how to talk about violent threats with their children and how to manage the anxiety that follows. 

Bethel Regional High School Principal Doug Boyer said that the school is always working on effective communication, and some students did meet with school social workers about anxiety.

Anna Rose MacArthur served as KYUK's News Director from 2015-2022.
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