Paris terror: Schools grapple with how to explain events to children

“There has to be both a balance of acknowledging the truth of what happened and also not scaring kids. And it’s really hard, because what happened is scary”

Images of carnage and grief have flooded social media and dominated traditional news reports since Friday’s terrorist attacks on Paris, leaving parents around the world to grapple with how and whether to explain the bloody and politically fraught events to their children.

As students returned to class on Monday across the U.S., many of the nation’s schools are assuming a central role in helping young people to process their feelings and understand what happened and why.

“Teachers are in a particularly challenging place,” said Karen Murphy, international director for Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that trains history teachers. “There has to be both a balance of acknowledging the truth of what happened and also not scaring kids. And it’s really hard, because what happened is scary.”

Like parents, teachers are often in the position of interpreting events — such as the rise of Isis, which claimed responsibility for the attacks — that they might not fully understand themselves. Teachers also are on the front lines in confronting anti-Muslim sentiments and stereotypes than can arise in response to such attacks when Islamist militants claim responsibility for brutal acts of terrorism.

Zainab Chaudry, Maryland outreach manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said her organization has seen an increase in reports of bullying and discrimination against Muslim students across the nation in the past year, and advocates worry that the Paris attacks could make that worse.

“Educators have a responsibility to lead these discussions impartially and fairly, and in a manner that doesn’t associate a terrorist political ideology with the world’s second-largest religion comprised of over 1 billion peaceful adherents — many of whom overwhelmingly have condemned the despicable acts that this group is engaged in,” Chaudry said.

Teachers in many middle schools and high schools around the nation redesigned their lesson plans for Monday in order to address the attacks, one of the deadliest acts of terrorism in the West since 9/11.

Ron Peck, who teaches Advanced Placement courses in U.S. and world history at a small public high school in southern Oregon, said his students would examine the role of the West in Iraq and Syria, and discrimination against Middle Eastern people in the West.

“I am making the Paris attacks a top priority for my AP classes,” Peck said.

Many elementary schools elected not to teach about the attacks at all, concluding that their students are too young.

At the Lycee Rochambeau, the French International School in Maryland, officials said they would observe a moment of silence at noon to honor the victims in Paris, but would talk about the attacks with young students only if they initiated the conversation by asking questions or voicing fears.

Cathy Hix, the supervisor of social studies for Arlington Public Schools, said elementary school teachers’ most important task is to help students feel safe. That was the difficult lesson from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks for the school district, which sits adjacent to the Pentagon. Hix, then a Swanson Middle School teacher, said the goal that day “was not to scare kids.”

“It’s a lot more of a reassurance that we are safe and that we have adults in our community to keep us safe,” Hix said.

But it’s important that teachers of older students counter misinformation, she said, especially in the age of smartphones, when students are learning so much from social media. She works to educate teachers both about current events and the complex contexts from which they emerge. This school year, she brought in an expert to give a lesson to teachers on Isis and the Middle East.

“I want them to be able to have the facts so they could dispel myths,” Hix said.

Other educators said they try to teach students not only about what happened, but also want to help children come up with steps they can take to do something with what they have learned. “What is the take away, so it’s not just being fearful and angry,” said Meredith Gavrin, co-founder of the New Haven Academy, a Connecticut high school that focuses on civic engagement and works to incorporate current events into the curriculum.

There are more resources to help teachers deal with the aftermath of a violent event now than there were 14 years ago, on 9/11, said Judith A. Myers-Walls, a professor emerita at Purdue University who has studied the impact of political violence on children.

But what children take away from those classroom lessons varies widely, Myers-Walls said. “The quality of the response depends a lot on the person who is responding,” she said. “A teacher can do this very sensitively or very insensitively and some pretend it’s not happening at all.”

Shannon Geraghty, who teaches government and world history at Forest Park High in Woodbridge, Virginia, said she allows students to drive discussions about current events, and the discourse can be polarizing. But she planned to interject Monday if she found the rhetoric too divisive.

“If a student is saying ‘those people, we should never allow them to come into our country,’ I will bring that around knowing that we have students in my class who are from that part of the world,” Geraghty said.

Flowers and tributes adorn the bullet damaged windows of the Le Carillon restaurant, one of the scenes of the November 16 attacks in Paris

Muslims in many countries have expressed concern about a backlash against their community, including against Muslim students, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

May Salloum-Shraim, a Muslim-American mother of three who lives in Germantown,Maryland., said bullying in schools is one of her main concerns.

She said scholars in the Islamic community should be invited into classrooms to help students understand that Isis, and the assailants in Paris, do not represent Islam as a whole. The perpetrators of attacks “are like a cult,” she said. “They have absolutely nothing to do with my faith.”

She said her own daughter, Hannah, a senior at Northwest High in Montgomery County, would feel comfortable because she has been deeply involved in her school and her classmates know her well; her peers elected her as their senior class president.

But Salloum-Shraim and her husband will remind the teenager, who wears a hijab, to remain vigilant about her surroundings at all times. “She wears her religion on her head every day,” she said.

Experts say children need space to express their emotions in the aftermath of a traumatic event, and school counselors said they were on the lookout for students in need of extra support.

Nathalie Khattar, a counselor at Rock Ridge High in Loudoun County who grew up during the war in Lebanon, knows first-hand that violence in the news can trigger painful memories for those who have fled war-torn countries.

She planned to keep a close eye on her refugee students from Syria and elsewhere.

“Trauma and violence brings back the lack of sense of security, the lack of sense of safety, the overwhelming sense of powerlessness,” Khattar said. “I’m expecting some of the students from these countries to come in and just express their feelings, or they’re looking for a sense of security, they’re looking to relate to the victims or to the people.”

Many teachers said they wished they had more time to devote to conversation about the attacks and a host of related and complex issues, from the rise of Isis to the nation’s stance on accepting refugees from Syria and other countries.

“All of this has to be simplified, of course, and unfortunately is still secondary to getting through our basic content to prepare for upcoming standardized tests,” said Stephen Wright, an eighth grade history teacher in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Wright said he would ask his students to debate what role the U.S. can play in stopping Isis from committing acts of terror and influencing disaffected populations.

“That being said, I’m always careful to point out that there are millions of Muslims in our nation and billions around the world who abhor extremism and are just attempting to live their lives,” Wright said. “We also need to discuss the western bias of why this attack brings so much camaraderie with France, whereas the previous day’s events in Lebanon warrant hardly a peep.”

A double suicide-bombing in Beirut killed at least 43 people on Thursday, but received far less media attention than the attacks in Paris.

Murphy, of Facing History, said that though the Paris attacks have generated enormous media attention, they are only one of many troubling events that teachers have confronted in the classroom.

In 2013, teachers helped students understand the Boston marathon bombing, for example. And in the past year, America’s racial divisions, racial violence and police brutality have all come to the fore. It’s critical that schools make time for these kinds of conversations — not only on the days after something terrible happens, Murphy said, and not only for 15 isolated minutes at the beginning of class.

It’s also important that teachers get the training and practice that they need to create a safe environment for discussions about difficult subjects, she said.

“We know that kids are coming to the classrooms with things happening, either immediately in their communities or internationally, that are troubling and destabilizing. Schools are and should be places to grapple with these things,” Murphy said. “Kids really need this space to wrestle with the issues that are right there on their doorstep, almost no matter where they live — and their teachers do too.”

Donna St. George and Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.

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