The impact of tragedy

Saturday, April 21, 2007

When Jackson High School senior Christopher Crossett begins college this fall, the Virginia Tech massacre won't be far from his thoughts.

Crossett, 18, who is originally from Virginia, has an older cousin who is a freshman at the university. His best friend lives in West Ambler Johnston Hall, the dorm on campus where the first shooting occurred Monday.

"I'm still shocked about it," Crossett said Wednesday. "I was scared about it when I first heard the news. My family as a whole was really scared since my cousin was going there."

Crossett found out his cousin and friend were both safe late Monday afternoon.

"The shootings will definitely be on my mind, and I'm sure I'll be pretty cautious around school for the first six months to a year," said Crossett, who will attend Central Christian College in McPherson, Kan.

Resource officer Al Spencer patrolled the cafeteria during lunch Friday at Central Junior High School in Cape Girardeau. Since the 1999 Columbine massacre that left 15 people dead, there has been an effort to improve school safety by adding enforcement officers who work within the schools. Spencer has been working at the junior high for six years. (Diane L. Wilson)

The incident at Virginia Tech may leave more of a psychological impact on college and high school students than younger children, said Dr. Ken Callis, a psychology professor at Southeast Missouri State University.

"They draw immediate comparisons," he said. "I know my own students have made several comments about how they feel about this tragedy. They understand that when this happened, they were doing the same activities as the Virginia Tech students -- they were in their dorms or attending classes. It is much more real to them."

Callis said children may not comprehend what happened at Virginia Tech.

Cape Girardeau's Alma Schrader Elementary School principal Ruth Ann Orr said the Virginia Tech incident hasn't had the same effect on students as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The Virginia Tech incident has certainly been on television and in the newspapers, but September 11 caused air traffic to stop, there was the panic about the possible shortage of gasoline and there was an overall larger sense of unease throughout our community as it directly affected day-to-day events across the country," Orr said.

Orr and guidance counselor Julia Unnerstall made a decision to not discuss the Virginia Tech incident with the students unless there was an individual concern.

As of Thursday, none of the Alma Schrader students had concerns about the incident.

"I think parents are very sensitive to limiting exposure to news events which could be disturbing to 5-to-10-year-olds," Orr said.

Unnerstall said too much exposure of tragic events might be detrimental to young children. She spoke with her 11-year-old son about the Virginia Tech incident but has limited the amount of television coverage of the event in her home.

"My son asked, 'Why would anyone do that?' As a parent, those questions can be hard to answer," she said. "I just told him that we may never know the answers but obviously this young man had a lot of problems. The important thing I wanted him to know was that he's safe and the schools do everything they can to make sure the students are in a safe environment."

Officials are so concerned with keeping students safe that intruder drills have become as common as tornado drills in Cape Girardeau's public schools. Resource officers also have a strong presence in the junior high and high schools.

Tori Twidwell

It's the school's resource officer who gives eighth-grade students Tori Twidwell and Sean Clemon a sense of security at Central Junior High School.

Sean Clemon

"I feel safe," Clemon said. "I can't imagine someone coming here and doing something like what happened in Virginia."

Both Twidwell and Clemon heard about the Virginia Tech incident but haven't watched much of the news coverage on television.

"I didn't know what to think when I first heard about it," Twidwell said. "I just heard some guy killed 30-something people and I thought, 'Wow, that guy has something really wrong with him.'"

Clemon said he doesn't understand why a person would kill 32 people and himself.

"It was crazy," he said. "I heard about it at school, and then later that night I went home and prayed for those people."

Callis said some local children may not be as concerned about the Virginia Tech issue because it didn't happen in their city.

"College students, on the other hand, know exactly what it's like to sit in class, relaxed and unconcerned about what threats might be just outside the door," he said.

Jackson High School graduate Elizabeth Nussbaum, who attends the University of Missouri in Columbia, knows the fears Callis describes.

"It happened at a college where you would never expect it," she said. "It is really scary because it makes you think that if it can happen there, why won't it happen here?"

Nussbaum said she feels safe at college, although the shootings have made her a little uneasy.

"Anytime something like this happens, it will make you take more precautions for personal safety," she said. "Although it is scary, I'm definitely not paranoid."

Nussbaum's mother Sarah is a guidance counselor at Jackson High School and when she heard about the Virginia Tech incident, her thoughts immediately turned to her own daughter's safety.

"Your heart just breaks for all of the families affected by this tragedy, and you hope this doesn't ever happen to you," she said. "Unfortunately, things like this can't be prevented, but you can hope students who exhibit warning signs like this in the future will be referred to counseling or treated before something like this ever happens again."

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