CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - When white supremacists began rallying in downtown Charlottesville this weekend, Liz Licht kept the TV off, trying to shield her three kids from the hate spewed on the streets of this normally quiet college town.
But after learning that a 32-year-old woman who joined a counter-protest was killed by a man described as having neo-Nazi sympathies, Licht could no longer keep news of the violence from her nine-year-old son and seven-year-old twins.
“Our son went to bed scared that night,” Licht said. “He said he never really knew evil existed until that day.”
Licht joined other parents to call on the local school district to help Charlottesville children exposed to the hate and violence, especially as they leave the safe haven of home to start the school year.
“We want to work with them to develop buddy systems to pair them up with someone who is an immigrant or refugee,” Licht, 41, said on Tuesday as she stood near a pile of flowers marking the street where Heather Heyer was killed. “Make it hands-on, not just talking about it.”
Charlottesville Public Schools officials said they are preparing specific plans on how to address the issue when students return to classes next week.
School leaders are tweaking their plans for the new year and preparing teachers to handle students’ questions about the violence and hate speech, schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said in an e-mail.
“If we miss these steps, we will miss an opportunity for healing and growth,” Atkins said.
Saturday’s rally was the latest in a series of demonstrations by white supremacists in Charlottesville in recent months. It deteriorated into street fighting that culminated in Heyer’s killing, allegedly by 20-year-old James Alex Field, who injured 19 other people by crashing his car into a counter-protest.
Psychologists often warn that young children can be traumatized by images of violence and urge parents to limit their exposure to news accounts of events like Saturday’s rally.
But given the white nationalist ideology that drove the “Unite the Right” event, experts said parents and schools should talk directly with their children about their beliefs.
“This is a really important teaching moment,” said Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Cornell School of Medicine.
Schools in particular could use the incident as a way to teach students to cope with bullying, by stepping up to object to bullies, rather than being passive bystanders.
“Any way that one can be helpful always relieves anxiety,” said Saltz. “You might say to a child that in your microcosm of school, it’s really important to make everyone feel respected.”
Corey Eicher, 42, stopped with his daughters, aged seven and four, to leave flowers at the memorial for Heyer. He said he had tried to soothe his children’s fears by talking about the police and race.
“We showed them that a lot of the police working that day were black, of every color,” Eicher said. “My older daughter is seven, so she kind of understands what is happening.”
Lila’s reaction to Saturday’s events was brief: “Scary.”
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Dan Grebler