The children walked in silence Monday morning, clutching flowers and folded cards with messages in scrawled marker and foam stickers.
They gathered at the intersection of Lowry and Penn avenues, circling a sign already covered in dinosaur balloons, plastic trucks and stuffed animals. As quietly as they could, 160 students from Lucy Craft Laney Community School left scores of notes and carnations at the makeshift shrine for 2-year-old Le’Vonte King Jason Jones, who was killed there last week.
Jones and his 15-month-old sister, Melia Queen Melvina Jones, were shot while riding in a van driven by their father before noon Friday. The girl survived.
Mauri Melander, the principal at Laney, said about 50 children involved in summer programs were outside near the school at the time of the shooting. When they heard the gunshots just down the block, many of them took shelter.
“This isn’t the first time many of these children have heard gunshots,” Melander said. “But this can’t become the normal for them.”
Many of the children at the school knew the family and the little boy who went by “King,” she said. His death came on the heels of the police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, as well as the shooting of a dozen police officers in Dallas — events that many of the students were asking about at school on Monday.
For Melander, letting the students grieve was crucial.
“It can’t be just another day,” she said. “We had to take time this morning to let [the students] talk about this. We can’t let our kids get calloused by these events.”
Dr. Gigi Chawla, senior medical director of primary care with Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, agreed. Parents and educators must let children talk about and respond to tragic events, she said, because bottled-up emotions can lead to stomach aches, headaches, bed-wetting or moodiness.
“The natural instinct is to shut it all out and make a little utopia for children,” she said. “But I would also love for parents to engage kids in conversations about what has been happening.”
Robin Parritz, a psychology professor at Hamline University, said it’s important for parents to hold their own emotions in check while speaking with children about sensitive topics and to find a balance between sadness and hopefulness.
“Parents must validate their kids’ fears but must also let them know that there are a lot of adults trying to make it better, trying to make the world safer,” she said.
Every adult working with kids in the Twin Cities should think about how children will respond to the events of the past week, Parritz said.
“Kids are resilient but they won’t be forever,” she said. “We can’t keep expecting them to bounce back without offering support for them and showing them that there is reason for hope.”
Both Chawla and Parritz said helping children do something concrete — such as writing a letter to a grieving family, baking cookies for local police or making a poster for a rally — can offer that sense of hope and involvement.
After the children walked back to school Monday morning, Melander knelt by the makeshift memorial, rearranging the carnations and the piles of scrawled messages. She fanned them out, pausing on one with foam stickers spelling out “RIP.”
As she stretched plastic wrap around the messages, her fingers shuffled a card to the top. In wide-spaced letters written in red and blue crayon, it read: “To King’s Family, pretend this note is a hug. I’m so sorry.”