Living in a Baltimore County suburb, Stephanie Pellegrini’s conversations with her kids about gun violence had been limited. She’s never had a real reason to talk to her small children about something so serious as mental health or traumatic events, she said.
But those topics soon hit closer to home when her 7-year-old daughter — and more than 4,600 other students — stayed home from Cockeysville-area schools last week because a gunman had shot a police officer and escaped from authorities.
Police were on a three-day manhunt last week to track down David Linthicum, 24, of Cockeysville. He is accused of shooting the first officer and a detective, and leading authorities on a high-speed chase into Harford County.
Before Linthicum was found and arrested on Feb. 10, Baltimore County Public Schools closed six schools on Feb. 9 as a precaution. Parents had to explain to their kids why they had to stay home, and the school system deployed staff to the six schools once they reopened to offer extra mental health support.
Pellegrini said she simply told her 2-year-old son he’d get to stay home and play with his toys. But the situation required a delicate conversation with her daughter.
“When she asked why school was closed, I said, ‘There’s a missing person that they’re looking for,’” Pellegrini said. “But she’s old enough and insightful enough to question why school would be closed just for a missing person. And I said, ‘Well, because the person has a weapon, and you know, they want to make sure that doesn’t hurt others.’”
Pellegrini said she didn’t want the focus to be “evil man with gun” so she chose a different approach..
“I used her knowledge of physical illness to lead into the conversation about mental illness,” she said. “It was a first for us on the topic, but I think it went well. I’m sure there will be more.”
MaatenRe Ramin, the coordinator of school counseling for the county school system, said parents who need to have these tough conversations should let the kids lead the conversation and provide reassurance of safety during and after a traumatic event.
She said parents should control the narrative rather than have children rely on information from friends or social media.
When her 12-year-old granddaughter mentioned the “man on the run,” Ramin said that police responded right away and school staff did what they could by closing the six schools.
“When there’s a question you can’t answer, don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t have an answer for that,’” she said.
Younger kids may struggle describing their discomfort, so Ramin suggested keeping an eye out for changes in sleeping or eating patterns and how long it lasts. That could speak to the severity of the trauma and whether to seek mental health support for kids. It’s also important to remember, Ramin said, that trauma looks different on everyone.
Melissa Santini said her 5-year-old daughter was nervous about the helicopters circling overhead, but it was her 13-year-old daughter with whom she had a deeper conversation.
“She was pretty scared,” Santini said about her oldest child. “Her school didn’t close but we kept her home.”
She let her know the “police were on it.”
The school system has a traumatic loss team which consists of school counselors, social workers, psychologists and pupil personnel workers who are dispersed to school buildings where a tragic incident has occurred. It’s often when a student or staff member dies. Teams were sent to the six school buildings on Friday following the district’s decision to resume classes after Linthicum was arrested in the morning.
When staff are present, they try to make sure they aren’t disruptive of the school day, Ramin said. They want to maintain some normalcy. Having too many trauma team members in the building may make students assume there’s a reason to worry.
“It could be triggering to that person,” Ramin said
Every school has a partnership with a mental health program that can provide more intensive counseling. And Ramin said the district can provide long-term therapy if needed.
Parents can visit the system’s mental health services webpage for more resources.
For Pellegrini, the conversation with her daughter led to an explanation of why someone would want to hurt themselves.
“”I realized that was not really something we had talked about before,” she said. “It hadn’t really come up.”