Grief, heartache felt in South Bend area

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Brandy Parker will hug her young children a little tighter today.

The young South Bend mother stood outside of Madison Primary Center Friday afternoon waiting for her second-grader as news of the horrors from a Connecticut elementary school poured out.

"I cannot even picture that right now," Parker said, shuddering.

You expect high schools to line doors with metal detectors and security, but who would think that would be necessary at an elementary school?

"I always thought they were safe," she said.

A gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Friday morning -- an event that caused many parents picking up young children from school to hold their kids tight and pray for the victims.

Talking to children

As the news pours out to adults, children could learn about it and be affected, especially as young children were the victims of senseless violence, mental health experts say.

"Even very young children know something about what is going on. They do care about people, not only that they know but people they don't know," Purdue University child development expert Judith Myers-Walls said. "Other kindergartners will feel this very deeply and worry about the families."

While it may not be necessary to explain the events of the shooting in detail to a child, parents can ask their children if they have questions about what they have heard on the news.

"They will very quickly start picking up that something big happened," Myers-Walls said.

Kristin Valentino clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Notre Dame, said children who pick up on the news could jump to incorrect conclusions.

"One primary tip is to talk with kids to see what they think happened, and what they might be worried about so you can clarify misinformation," Valentino, who specializes in child trauma, said.

Myers-Walls said one thing families can do with young children is light a candle for the victims, or reflect together in some way.

"There is a natural empathy children show at quite a young age," she said.

What can be done

Could anything have been done to prevent such a tragedy like this from happening?

In this particular case, one local expert says, it would have been difficult.

"There was probably very little that could have been done in this particular setting," said Brett Coppins, owner of Coppins Investigative and Security Group, with local offices in Elkhart and South Bend.

"Most high schools have someone that monitors the front door such as a security guard or off-duty police officer," Coppins added. "Many have gone to metal detectors. We're very unlikely to see that at the elementary level. As long as we have this type of open society, it will be very difficult to prevent something like this."

At this point, Coppins said, it is important to try to prevent these acts before they occur.

"There's a possibility someone saw one of those red flags," he said. "It is rare something like this can happen without a red flag."

Coppins said it's the responsibility of the community, not police, to find -- and report -- people who are troubled to law enforcement.

"It's a good time to pause take a look at people around you," he said.

Coppins pointed to an example where a mother last month turned in her son, a southwest Missouri man, who's accused of plotting attacks at a movie theater and Walmart store.

Coppins also believes it's time for legislators to take a hard look at gun laws and making changes to them, most notably stricter sentences on defendants who commit crimes involving guns.

In a statement, Superintendent Carole Schmidt of the South Bend Community Schools Corp. said the district continually reviews its safety plans.

"We have emergency preparedness plans for each school," Schmidt said. "Schools participate in safety drills on a regular basis, which include a

variety of scenarios."

Schmidt said all district schools are locked throughout the day and a camera entry security system limits access to the building.

"My heart goes out to them," Tammi Kohman said outside Madison Primary Center as she waited for her 6-year-old. "It could happen anywhere."

Staff writer Madeline Buckley: mbuckley@sbtinfo.com 574-235-6337

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