POTTSTOWN — The impacts of a shooting in your neighborhood go far beyond the incident itself, and this is especially true with young children. So when a man who, as of 4 p.m. Tuesday police had still refused to name, was shot and killed near the intersection of Scott and West King streets
Monday morning, the impact on students headed to Barth Elementary School two blocks away was on the mind of Ryan Oxenford and his staff. Oxenford has been the principal at Barth for nine years and grew up three blocks from where his school, and the homicide, occurred. "When it happens, you go into alert mode," said Oxenford, "you think about what you need to do for the school, the safety of the students and staff." "I had one teacher outside checking on safety patrols and she heard the shots," Oxenford said. The school went into lockdown for an hour, but that is just the beginning for how the impacts of what children saw and heard will ripple through the school year.
The school went into lockdown for an hour, but that is just the beginning for how the impacts of what children saw and heard will ripple through the school year. "Most of us didn't process it until we got home last night. I made sure I told my kids so they didn't hear about from anyone else," he said. Like the adults looking after them, most Barth students also likely did not process what they saw or heard right away. Pottstown has taken the lead in Pennsylvania in becoming what's called "a trauma-informed community," which means training on what to look for and what to do when the affects of trauma begin to have an impact on students lives, and those of their families. So many in the school community know it may take days, weeks or months for those young minds to work through what they witnessed. And not all of them will react in the same way. "We had a number of families contact us and let us know what their children had seen and heard and we've kept a list so we don't miss anyone," Oxenford explained. "Luckily, we're a month into school so the teachers know their students pretty well, but I emphasized to them yesterday and today to keep their eyes open for the verbal and non-verbal clues that a student is struggling, to listen for how it was being talked about," he said. "But to be honest, there was very little conversation about it," said Oxenford, noting that none of the school's student safety patrol members failed to show up at their posts Tuesday. "We're looking for the red flags to make sure we can help anyone who is going to be affected in some way," Oxenford said. "We're looking for immediate signs, but we are going to be sure not to take for granted that we may see signs later, much later." "People and kids respond to trauma in different ways. Some express sadness, some present signs of aggressiveness and some engage in behavior that is unexpected," Oxenford said. So weeks or months from now, the staff may be dealing with a discipline problem that may be driven by trauma from yesterday's events. In July, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill implementing trauma-informed programs in public schools and requiring individuals pursuing a degree in education to take courses on trauma-informed approaches. Pottstown is ahead of the game on that score. It has a website — https://pottstownmatters.org/ — with resources and background on trauma, its impacts and best practices for dealing with it. The site explains that "trauma, toxic stress, or Adverse Childhood Experiences/ACEs can interfere with brain development, managing emotions, and a sense of belonging and safety." "If we ignore it," the site warns, "a child who experiences trauma develops into an adult who is more likely to to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, become addicted to drugs or alcohol, have run-ins with the law, and continue the cycle with their own children. Positive relationships and connection can help children and adults cope with ACEs and thrive." This initiative is the foundation for the school district's "social emotional learning" curriculum that seeks to help students learn to deal with conflict, trauma and volatile emotions in a productive way. Wednesday morning, uniformed officers will have breakfast with third graders, who will take a field trip to the police department, fire house and library. The event was scheduled several weeks ago, but Oxenford said the "timing couldn't be better." "We have a pretty good relationship with the police. They stop by and visit pretty regularly and they're very friendly with the students," he said. "This speaks to building that relationship even more strongly."