As police officers led hundreds of young children outside Friday, away from their blood-stained Connecticut elementary school, they asked the youngsters to close their eyes, hoping to shield them from the carnage.
It will be a long road to healing for the small community of Newtown after one of their own opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, slaughtering 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Gunman Adam Lanza was once an honours student who lived in an affluent Newtown neighbourhood with his mother, Nancy. Police suspect he killed her before taking her car and three guns to the grade school.
Asking the children to close their eyes as they walked past blood and bodies was an important first step in helping the youngsters – aged 5 to 10 – deal with such an enormous tragedy, said Kevin Cameron, an Alberta-based trauma specialist. Now is the time for reassurance and "psychological first aid," he added, not for deconstructing one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.
"We do not want to be forcing kids to talk about what they saw, what they experienced before they're ready," said Mr. Cameron, who trains crisis-response teams in Canada and internationally. "Instead, what we really need to do is emphasize that they are now safe, that we're going to keep them safe," he added.
"And by nature we can lay the foundation to work with them in the weeks and months to follow."
Profound trauma can have lasting effects on children, the trauma specialist noted, potentially influencing their brain and emotional development. Mr. Cameron has been on the front lines of helping Canadian schools and students cope with devastation. He was invited to Grande Prairie, Alta., after four high-school football players died in a car crash last year. He aided Bathurst High in New Brunswick, which lost seven students and an adult in a van crash in 2008. And he led the crisis response to a school shooting in Taber, Alta., which occurred only eight days after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 15 people were killed.
In the days ahead, Mr. Cameron said it's important for police, school and health officials to keep a close watch for copycats.
"We know that high-profile violence intensifies already existing symptoms in other troubled individuals," he said. "We identified this post-Columbine and in other incidents."
Criminologist Ray Surette, who teaches at the University of Central Florida, is also worried about copycats. He said the intense media storm that accompanies mass shootings can fuel other heinous crimes.
"My concern is there is going to be people out there who are going to say 'Wow, so this is all I have to do to get my moment of infamy and I can go out with a bang.'"
Mr. Cameron that in times of grief, children often take their cues from adults. Like the children, the adults of Newtown will need counselling and guidance to cope.
"If the adults, who know they need to be there for the kids, are actually beginning to fall apart, their own recovery will be very complex as they struggle with guilt," Mr. Cameron said.
"Because of how severe this situation is, you know this is going to be years for people to really be able to get back to anything even close to a normal life."