“Mom, can you come pick me up? Everyone is talking about gun threats in school today. I’m really nervous. Please come get me!”
This is the jarring text I received from my 13-year-old son back on Dec. 17. Like many other kids that day, he was shaken by rumors of “National Shoot Up Your School Day,” a morbid “challenge” many claim to have started on TikTok. While the challenge itself turned out to be a hoax, the threat of gun violence in schools is very real. And here in Staten Island, parents had already been on edge after a disturbing video of a fight involving guns outside Susan E. Wagner High School surfaced the week before.
After one and a half torturous years of remote learning, I thought I’d be more excited to have the kids back in school full time. But between the increasing violence in schools and my ongoing love affair with true crime documentaries, I’m not far from locking them in their rooms forever – which is not recommended if you don’t want to end up the subject of a true crime documentary.
As a parent, there simply seems to be no limit to my anxieties involving the safety of my children. It starts the moment they head to school and subsides only once they are home safely with me.
I spoke to Eltingville father of three and newly retired NYPD Detective Dominick La Torre in search of some advice on keeping kids safe in a world where it seems evil lurks around every corner. He shared the following tips, all of which he uses to keep his own family safe.
How to Keep Your Kids Safe In School — And Everywhere Else!
Start safety practices early.
Det. La Torre says parents shouldn’t wait until their kids are in school to implement safety practices, citing the importance of preparing them for a time when mom and dad aren’t always around. “When my kids were very little, I made up a simple but catchy tune that incorporated our address,” he said. “We sang it together every day: ‘I live at ______ Court, Staten Island, New York!’ We also sang our phone number together—area code included, of course.”
Everyone needs an ID.
La Torre also suggests parents create identification cards, preferably laminated, to keep in their child’s backpack and/or jacket at all times. “Try to update the cards with a new photo every six months so that you have the most recent image of your child to share with police in the event of an emergency,” he explains.
You can also get an official ID card for your child through the Operation SAFECHILD program, a free public service that provides you with a card containing your child’s name, biographical information (date of birth, gender, height, weight, hair and eye color, and other identifying data), and a fingerprint image of both index fingers. It serves a dual purpose when used in conjunction with the NYS AMBER Alert and Missing Child Alert programs. It “allows essential missing child information to be disseminated, statewide if necessary, within minutes and dramatically increases the possibility of bringing a missing child home,” according to nysheriffs.org. For information on how to obtain a SAFE CHILD Card for your child or to host an event in your community, contact the Community Affairs Officer at your local precinct.
Role play helps.
It might seem silly to some, but role play is an invaluable tool for teaching children — old and young— how to manage certain situations. La Torre recommends parents envision various scenarios and demonstrate to their children how each should be handled.
“I tell my kids not to be afraid to make a scene if a stranger ever approaches them. The louder they are, the better,” he cautions. “They know to run as fast as they can into a store, a school, a bank, a police station. Anywhere they can be seen on camera is good. We routinely go over a list of safe places to go if they are in danger or lost.”
Another scenario — perhaps the most worrisome of all — is that of an active shooter in school. Unlike “stranger danger,” this is not the time to make a spectacle and attract attention. La Torre says it’s important for students to remain as quiet as possible, move out of sight, and follow their teacher’s directions carefully.
Parents can register with Notify NYC to receive information about emergency events. Schools train and drill all staff and students in the General Response Protocol, which describes what to do in an evacuation, shelter-in, or lockdown, according to the New York City Department of Education. The training is tailored for different grade levels so that it’s age-appropriate and not scary or upsetting.
Have regular chats with your kids.
Consistency is one of the most important things to keep in mind when going over safety practices with your family, according to La Torre. “Don’t just talk and assume that they’re listening. Have them repeat your words back to you. Despite your best attempts to make it interesting, eventually your kids will be tired of discussing what to do in dangerous situations. But don’t get discouraged because those discussions might save their lives one day,” La Torre urges.
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Most older kids have cell phones, which makes keeping track of their whereabouts easy with an app you can download to your phones, such as Life 360 or Google Maps. But what if your child is too young for a phone, or like my son, has a phone but forgets it at home every other day? La Torre recommends using a GPS tracking device like the LandAirSea 54 Tracker, the Jiobit or the Lil Tracker 2G Kids’ GPS Tracker Watch. These devices can be sewn into the lining on your child’s coat, clipped onto a backpack, or even worn on the wrist. A subscription is usually required, but it’s a small price to pay for the peace of mind in knowing your child’s exact location at all times.
Do your research.
Did you know you can easily find out if you live near a registered sex offender by searching a public online directory? The New York State Sex Offender Registry contains a variety of information about registered sex offenders, including photos, names and aliases, home and/or work addresses, and convictions that required registration. This information is readily available at criminaljustice.ny.gov, where you can also get information on missing persons and crime statistics in your area.
Trust no one.
Unfortunately, nearly 75 percent of abductions are executed by someone known by the victim. La Torre advises parents to routinely remind their children not to trust or go with anyone without permission. “My kids and I have a secret code word we use if they are in danger. If they are approached by a family friend, neighbor, or even a relative, they should use caution. If this person can tell them the code word, they will know they are safe with this person. It’s sad, but it’s the world we live in and it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Maintain an open dialogue.
“It’s crucial that your children feel comfortable coming to you with any concerns or problems they’re having,” La Torre says. Since so many abductions involve someone familiar to the victim, kids need to know they can talk to you when someone they know is acting strangely or inappropriately toward them. They should also feel safe coming to you if they hear talk of any threats in school, have knowledge of another student bringing dangerous weapons to school, or if anyone has threatened their well-being in any way.
“Keep the dialogue with your children as open as possible, and never shame them for being afraid or nervous,” La Torre continued. “Teach them to trust their gut. If something or someone seems off, they should come to you immediately.”
Monitor phones and internet use.
There are a million reasons to stay on top of your child’s social media, and steering clear of predators is at the very top of that list. Children (and parents, for that matter) should never share any personal information on the internet, a fact that needs to be repeated over and over again. Even the most careful of children can fall victim to ill-intentioned people online. La Torre strongly recommends Bark, a parental control app that monitors more than 30 of the most popular apps and social media platforms, including text messaging and email, for signs of digital dangers. Parents receive alerts on bullying, predators, sexual content, and more. If you don’t want to purchase an app, make sure you know all of their passwords and regularly check their internet history, pictures, text messages, and all social media accounts.
Talk to a mental health professional.
This stuff is scary. Most of us never experienced school lockdowns and online predators in our own childhoods, so it can be difficult to relate to what our kids are dealing with today. If your child is feeling heightened stress or anxiety about their safety that isn’t due to any direct threats or emergencies, have them speak to a therapist or child psychologist about managing their fears.
“As parents, the most important thing we can do when we are worried about our kids is remain vigilant,” La Torre says. “If you worry whether you’re doing the right thing when it comes to your child’s safety, then you probably are. It’s the parents who worry that are getting it right.”
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