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What It Means When Students Become 'Heroes'


Kendrick Castillo died this week at the age of 18. He lunged at a student at STEM High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., who would open fire, and he saved the lives of countless classmates. Several other students also tried to stop the gunman and are being acclaimed for their courage. But does celebrating children as heroes create a kind of added pressure on youngsters with each school shooting?

Melissa Glaser is a licensed professional counselor in Woodbury, Conn., and she has counseled survivors of the Sandy Hook school shootings. Ms. Glaser, thanks so much for being with us.

MELISSA GLASER: Hi, I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: You see these admirable young men and women saying brave things. How do you react?

GLASER: Yeah, I think it's a really difficult issue. A few have sacrificed their lives and potentially saved others. It's difficult to see the portrayal. What we don't want is for other adolescents to feel a pressure or a need to jump into the line of fire. You know, what we all want and what parents want is, obviously, for their child to come home at the end of the day. We don't want students thinking that the right thing to do is to be a hero. We want students thinking that the right thing to do is to follow safety protocols that almost every school, I think, in the nation now has been observing.

SIMON: Do you wonder if some of the youngsters who followed orders and, you know, dropped behind a desk or took cover somehow think that they failed, that they are not brave or not heroes?

GLASER: We could see from this a child that may have been in that same room maybe hiding behind desks doing their best to get out of the room could end up feeling like maybe I didn't do enough or maybe I should have been the one to jump in or maybe if I did something different a student like Kendrick would still be here. So survivor's guilt can be a really difficult phenomena that weighs heavy and has to be worked through in recovery later on.

SIMON: What is the impact you think when youngsters see the slides that roll across the bottom of television screens hailing admirable young people who are very young as heroes?

GLASER: You know, again, it's a hard one because the parents of those children want to honor their child and so does everybody else that knew these kids. So we do want to honor their lives, their sacrifice. But we also do not want to sensationalize the idea that this is a good thing to do. We're walking a very tricky line.

I think, you know, more importantly I often will be asked, is the media coverage of this a good thing? And I think we have to be much more cautious and careful about how quickly we're thrusting a microphone in front of people and asking them to tell their story. I think we would be much better served if we held back a bit and let people process the crisis and the tragedy and decide what is value added, what language they want to use, what method before jumping in to doing that because, you know, we're hearing this war hero attached to what happened, and is that a good thing or not?

SIMON: I wonder if some of the drills and conversations and preparations, recognizing that they're necessary, also create their own kind of trauma.

GLASER: Well, I think we don't have a choice anymore - right? - than to have these drills. So it is the norm. I hear from people all the time saying, what about the emotional aftermath after a drill? You know, we're not doing a very good job right now of doing those debriefings - how are you feeling in your mind and in your body, what did this bring up for you and going to class and all the normal phase of what was happening before the drill occurred. We also have to do this with educators. You know, sometimes we forget. We think that teachers are emotionally equipped to handle the aftermath, but that's not necessarily the case.

SIMON: What advice might you have for families?

GLASER: What I find is that parents are doing a lot more overthinking. It's very hard for them to make decisions about what will be safe and what won't because we don't have a crystal ball. And we don't know anymore when we send our child off to school or a movie theater if they're going to be coming back and if we're going to be hearing that another tragedy occurred in their backyard. It's also important that we embrace each other, that we keep talking about it and try to live our lives without sense of being distrustful of everything that we see and we hear. It's a balance that, I think, most parents are trying to find. And we don't have clear answers about where the right place to be is on that. And we can't stop our children from living their lives.

SIMON: Melissa Glaser is a licensed professional counselor in Woodbury, Conn.

Thank you so much.

GLASER: OK, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.