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Beyond the Headlines: Wilton Parents Struggle with News of a Teacher's Death

How do parents help their children understand when something truly horrible happens to a teacher in their school?

The awful news spread as this kind of news does: a bit trickled out at first, and then the crescendo of voices started calling out into the Internet village, saying this: Mrs. Bell, a music teacher at Cider Mill, had been killed over the weekend.

The first post on Facebook hit around midmorning Sunday, and then news reports started getting passed around. What we learned by midday was this:  Svetlana Bell, a third grade music teacher at Wilton’s Cider Mill School was allegedly shot by her husband, Robert, on Saturday night. Mr. Bell faces first-degree manslaughter charges and will be arraigned Monday.

But beyond the details in news reports of gunshots, and the rumors abounding on Facebook and elsewhere, come the stark realities of Monday morning. Our children are going to learn about the news one way or another, and we want to make sure they’re protected in the way they hear it. Our Wilton community is going to have to deal with yet another violent story of death and shooting and family tragedy, the second in as many weeks. Our school’s teachers and administrators are going to have to deal with the loss of a colleague and a friend.

It’s all so very sad.

What—and how—do we tell our children?

All day Sunday parents traded calls, emails and Facebook messages: ‘What should I tell my children?’ ‘Hopefully the school will provide counseling. What are they going to do, make an announcement?’ ‘My son heard from another kid on Xbox.’

All of the parents with children in the district, most especially those with Cider Mill third, fourth and fifth grade students, were consumed with what to tell our children. Of course, we knew they’d find out one way or another and we needed to understand what happened as best as possible with little real facts.

That presented part of the problem—what facts were real? The parents were getting run around the rumor mill, just as much as we feared how our children would face it Monday when they returned to school.

“None of us know what really happened, and none of us may ever know,” parent Lisa Smith said. “You can’t shut down the rumor mill. You know what you’re going to tell your kids; I know what I’m going to tell my kids. But we don’t know what so-and-so is going to tell their kids.”

So she, like many of us, had to get out in front of the news, but also try to not cross the line and destroy what remaining innocence we hope our kids still have.

“This was the first kind of ‘real talk’ we’ve had to have with them. They didn’t really know her, and we were careful—we didn’t say the word ‘murder.’ We said what happened was questionable. But my one son asked, ‘Was she murdered?’ They sadly already know too much in this world,” Smith lamented.

Amy Foodman, whose 13 year-old daughter had Bell as a teacher when she was in Cider Mill, also tried to help her child have some perspective about how the news can quickly grow out of proportion to the truth. “Inevitably, someone will say, ‘Oh I heard this was going on or that was going on.’ But all you really know is what is in the newspaper. She’ll hear whatever she hears, but I’ll have shown her the article and said, ‘This is really what happened and nobody knows the rest. This is as close to the truth that we get, it’s all we really have right now. So if anybody says they know, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Some other parents were just as upset as their children, like Eriko Cowe, whose daughters both took private violin lessons with Bell and knew her very well. In a post on Facebook, Cowe said she and her daughters were very upset by the news.

“I just had a chat with Mrs. Bell last Wednesday after my older daughter’s private violin lesson. We were looking forward to having a mini recital next month. My daughters cried when they heard and so did I. This kind of tragedy should never happen again.”

I had the same thought as my friend Phoebe Myers when she talked to her fourth grade son, Jack, who studied cello with Mrs. Bell last year. We can talk to our own kids, but we also need to make sure that we didn’t add to the idle chatter and rumors the kids would face when they returned to school after the weekend.

“I saw the article, but there was no reason to hide it from him. I always figure if he has questions, it’s better to bring it up at home before they’re in a school environment. So we just said, ‘Jack, we learned this sad news.’ But with this kind of situation you don’t have to go into the details—not because we hide things like that from the kids, we are pretty straightforward—but with this kind of thing kids might get gossipy,” she said.

But like Andrea Topalian, most of us got the sense that we wanted our kids to hear it first from us. That it would help them the most to understand and process it with our guidance—that this would be the safest thing for them. Topalian’s fourth grade daughter played in an orchestra that Bell conducted last year.

“I didn’t think she’d be upset. but I knew she’d have questions. I didn’t want her in a classroom of 20-plus kids and have a teacher come over the loudspeaker and explain it.  And will the kids hold those questions in until they get home? Will they start talking to their friends? You want the words to come from you. I don’t want them to be blindsided by things at school.”

Words of advice from a professional

Dr. Ann Reeves, a psychologist in Wilton Center, who works primarily with children and their families, has counseled school districts through this kind of tragic loss before.

Above all, she stressed how important it is for parents to be the ones to help their children sort out their feelings.

“I think parents should ask their children what they’ve heard, so that they can put out fires or dispel any misinformation. In this case, I wouldn’t want to use the word 'murder'. I would call it a tragedy, where she was hurt very badly and she died. That’s what I would say to younger children,” Reeves said, adding, “I think not to sensationalize how she died, but emphasize how she lived—what kind of a person was she and that it’s sad, and she was hurt badly and then she died. That’s what’s appropriate for younger children."

Dr. Reeves had some specific tips of things to say and do, including what kinds of questions to ask and what things parents should look for in the coming days and weeks.

  • Take the time to listen to your child’s expressed, as well as unexpressed reactions, and let them know that whatever they are feeling is normal.  Some youngsters internalize their grief and confusion at first, only to be manifested later, sometimes weeks or months. Children often ask why and how this could happen, especially to someone so young and vibrant, and parents need to know this may continue to come up.
  • Acknowledge any feelings of sadness and fear, especially for those children who knew her. Typical reactions by younger children may include anxiety for one’s own parents.
  • Children need to be reassured that while things like this may happen, it is so random and so rare.
  • Encourage children to talk about his/her relationship with Mrs. Bell— especially children who were in her class, took violin with her or knew her—how they liked her, how they’d like to remember her, and what they liked best about her.
  • For some youngsters, this may represent the first death of someone they knew well. It then becomes an opportunity for you to discuss death from your own cultural or religious tradition, being open to the many questions that might ensue. 
  • Older children may try to sensationalize what happened, and we need to reassert that this isn’t really our business, and refocus the conversation about talking about a very sad thing that happened.
  • Keep kids away from watching or reading about it over and over, and keep kids away from media as much as possible.

Reeves also wanted to remind parents that the counseling staff at school should be a resource, and those counselors should be alerted if your child has a more than typical response to this, especially if it affecting their ability to concentrate at school.

What we’ve heard from the schools

It seems like the schools are trying to handle things very carefully, knowing how sensitive and upsetting this will be to so many of the children. In the email Cider Mill principal Ginny Rico sent out to parents Sunday evening, she stressed that there will be a “crisis team” in place and counseling support will be available for students as needed. “If you feel your child needs support or you have further questions, please do not hesitate to call,” she wrote.

I’ve also heard that the schools will be making every effort to keep students protected from any media that comes to cover the news.

I would have liked to hear just a little bit more detail, on how they planned to tell students about it, or how they planned on handling questions that would come up or what language they planned on using.

But at the same time, the onus of helping our kids deal with the crisis shouldn’t be placed strictly on the shoulders of our teachers and administrators. It would be kind to remember that those in the schools have suffered a loss too, and that they’re doing the best they can under very stressful circumstances.

Svetlana Bell was a staff member, colleague and friend to administrators and other teachers. She taught in the district since 2006, according to published reports. It’s a shame that her co-workers can’t simply mourn on their own; instead they also need to be mindful that our children are protected through the process. We need to remember how this tragedy impacts everyone all around.

The tragedy goes far beyond all of us: Mrs. Bell has children and a wider family beyond that is mourning the loss of their loved one.

Phoebe Myers said something about this event that really hit home for me: “The fact that we had two violent incidents within a very short time, it certainly highlights the fact that no community is immune to this kind of tragedy. The fact that it happened twice in a row is shocking, but it’s a reminder for all of us that we don’t live in a perfect gilded cage.”

Which is something that underscores how healing from this will take time. It will take time for us to know how our children will react and how we can help them. It will take time for our school to heal—it’s not a problem with a simple solution and we need to work together with a bit of patience. And it will take time to realize that despite the kind of community Wilton is, we still have to confront terrible, horrible real-life moments.

It’s that challenge we have as individuals, as members of a community and as parents that help us live up to being better human beings. It’s in the understanding of the imperfection that exists and how we rise to the challenge of dealing with it that shows our humanity. And it’s in the communication of that to our children that shows our chance at being a better people.

Rest in peace, Svetlana. And my thoughts go out to all of us touched by this very human tragedy.

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