Greenwood library panel event to prepare parents for active shooter events

The impact from this summer’s shooting at the Greenwood Park Mall continues to be felt throughout the community.

Kelli Higgins was there when the tragedy unfolded. She and her daughters were eating dinner at the mall when word spread about the shooting.

The immediate fear of being so close to gun violence was compounded with an added concern — how to tell her daughters, who are both on the autism spectrum, in a safe way, that they needed to leave.

“It can be hard to tell your child that we have to go and be safe. Having a safe word can help them understand why they have to leave,” said Higgins, executive director for Autism Community Connection. “Situations like that, for families whose children have autism or other disabilities, sudden changes, especially in emergency situations, can be tough to navigate.”

Higgins will share her story during “Prepared Not Scared,” a special event for parents and caregivers of children of all ages and abilities Thursday at the Greenwood Public Library.

The panel discussion, which will also include representatives from the Greenwood Police Department and PediPlay Pediatric Therapy, focuses on best practices for protecting your family in an active shooter situation, and ways to help children prepare for and process traumatic situations.

“We wanted to know how we could talk to kids about this, whether that’s kids on the spectrum or just young kids in general,” said Katie Friedericks, kids services librarian at the Greenwood Public Library. “There are a lot of things we do in the autism community around preparing for things that are tough for our kids and that they have anxiety about.”

Friedericks shares a perspective with Higgins. Her 11-year-old son is on the autism spectrum, and they too had been at the Greenwood Park Mall on July 17, though they were gone by the time of the shooting.

In the days following, Friedericks questioned what she would have done had they been present when the firing started.

“The mall is one of his favorite places to go. He loves all of the stores, and goes in everything. So we had been there earlier,” she said. “It really got me thinking about what we would have done with my son and his challenges.”

Through her work with the library, Friedricks had gone through active shooter training, as many organizations and schools now required. She was hoping that there would be some perspective from law enforcement, as well as specialists who work with children with special needs.

She worked with Higgins to get the process rolling.

Higgins had been at dinner on the north end of the mall when the shooting occurred. She and her daughters, Michaela, 16 and Melanie, 12, were eating with Higgins’ parents at the restaurant, arriving just as the shooting occurred.

“I remember seeing people out in the parking lot, but it wasn’t like in the movies where you see a bunch of people running down the street,” she said. “So I didn’t think anything of it.”

While they were eating, social media posts started popping up shedding some light on what had happened. Higgins tried to keep everyone calm, investigating what the situation was without causing her daughters or her parents to panic.

Eventually, the manager came over to their table, explaining that their waiter and kitchen staff had left, and it was time for them to leave. Higgins was concerned how to explain it to Melanie, though they were all able to leave safely.

“We didn’t know how to tell her. She has these expectations about what we were doing,” she said. “That’s what kind of sparked this whole conversation for families to have. Each family is different, each individual is different, how they react to everything. We wanted to start a conversation and help them prepare as much as possible.”

About a week after the shooting, Higgins and Friedricks were having a conversation about the situation. The two know each other well through Autism Community Connection, as Friedricks serves on the organization’s board.

They wondered what they could do to help the community through such a traumatizing event.

“We wanted to get the conversation started. What do you prepare for an emergency situation? And how does that relate to families who have special needs in those situations?” Higgins said. “It’s just hard to prepare for something like this, so we’re trying to provide tools and resources for them.”

They reached out to representatives from the Greenwood Police Department, as well as Morgan Doelling, a therapist and assistant clinic director for PediPlay, a pediatric therapy clinic specializing in feeding, motor, language, developmental, social and sensory challenges.

Greenwood police, PediPlay, Friedricks and Higgins will all discuss how to prepare for incidents like an active shooter out in the community.

“We’ll hear what law enforcement recommends if you’re actually in that situation — what you’d do and how you’d act. Then PediPlay and Autism Community Connection will bring in how to actually prepare and how to talk to your kids about this,” Friedricks said.

Videos, articles and other resources will be available to offer a variety of information that meets the needs of all kinds of families.

For example, families can create a “safe word” — a word or phrase that parents can use that immediately lets their children know that they need to leave where they are at, in a safe and orderly manner.

“It’s really going to be an open-ended discussion. A lot of the things we’ve prepared are easily adaptable to your families and your kids, to what they might be able to understand and respond to,” Friedricks said. “We hope its more of a discussion, and parents and caregivers can give their input and really brainstorm together.”


Community Conversations: Prepared Not Scared

What: A panel discussion for parents and caregivers of children of all ages and abilities about best practices for protecting your family in an active shooter situation, and ways to help children prepare for and process traumatic situations.

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29

Where: Greenwood Public Library, 310 S. Meridian St.

Who: The panel will feature representatives from the Greenwood Police Department, pediatric therapy clinic PediPlay and Autism Community Connection, which serves those affected by autism with community resources, enriching programs and social events.