April 25, 2012LANCASTER– The thin veneer that makes the North Country and Northeast Kingdom feel so safe was punctured by a string of violent deaths over the last two weeks. It was a heavy, if not historic toll of carnage – six people killed in a combination of murders and supposed suicides in a matter of days.
On Thursday, April 12, Christopher Smith shot and killed Joseph Besk and injured Wayne Ainsworth in their Whitefield Road, Dalton home and then fatally turned the gun on himself – then five days later, on Wesson Road, Lancaster Gene Sly shot and killed David Collins and later Sly and his wife, Elena, were found dead in a burned-up camper. Both are under investigation with only rudimentary detail available. These came on the heels of the murder of St. Johnsbury, Vt. schoolteacher Melissa Jenkins and last summer's still unsolved murder of 11-year-old Celina Cass.
The news spread quickly throughout the region – just as schools broke for April vacation – children and adolescents were forced to deal with the disturbing news within the confines of their immediate families and smaller social circles, rather than the larger school community.
"We're such a small community," said Whitefield School Principal Michael Cronin, who previously was SAU 36 district-wide psychologist, "but not isolated" from the problems of the larger society. He said his school "will maintain a routine" focused on academics and be available on a one-on-one basis for students who need assistance.
Emily Cowan, a Lancaster psychotherapist in private practice, says it's best to respond specifically to your children's immediate questions or fears and do not over reach – certainly do not get into the specific, lurid details. "Just answer their questions," she said, "pretend you're talking about sex."
Do not force a conversation or overreact, Cowan added, "open the door to a discussion, (but) accept it if they decline." Most importantly, she said, "Kids usually worry about safety," ease, do not heighten their fears.
Cronin, who is also the father of a third grader, said it's important to "wait and learn what the facts are" but he did offer his own advice around the importance of making good decisions. The incidents highlight, he said, "a very inappropriate way of dealing with problems and stress." He said it's important that we teach children to "make decisions that solve conflicts and deal with stress in healthy ways."