Therapy dogs and questions: How Highland Park’s children are coping

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman.
Clara Rozenberg, 10, pets a crisis response support dog at the memorial site for the Highland Park shooting on Thursday.

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – The high school students had come to understand they might experience a mass shooting one day, maybe in the classroom, like the drills they’d done before. But they didn’t think it would happen outdoors, while many of them were part of a parade.

Just before bullets from a semiautomatic rifle ripped into concrete, glass windows and their neighbors’ flesh, the Highland Park High School marching band was providing the soundtrack for the Fourth of July celebration. Then they dropped their instruments and ran.

Meeting Thursday at their school with two psychologists, some of the teenagers who participated in the parade said they felt guilty, and wished they’d done more to help others escape.

“It’s a natural feeling when people go through traumatic experiences,” said school psychologist Casey Moravek, who shared aspects of the counseling session with The Washington Post. “But to hear guilt from people who should not have been put through this in the first place – the fact that they have this negative feeling about themselves – is heartbreaking.”

In the days since Monday’s mass shooting, which killed seven and injured more than 40, Highland Park community leaders and advocates have focused on addressing the psychological toll on children and teenagers touched by the violence.

Both the parade and the crowd of onlookers included hundreds of youngsters of all ages. The community’s schools and churches have been converted into therapy resource centers for families seeking guidance in the aftermath.

Michelle Marks brought her sons, 8 and 4, to the parade. Her 10-year-old was at summer camp. The family sat about a half-block from where the gunman, perched on a rooftop and disguised in women’s clothing, concentrated his assault.

When the shooting started, Marks and her husband grabbed the boys from their seats on the curb and sprinted for an open coffee shop. They ran out a back door to a parking garage, finding shelter in a stairwell as the boys shrieked in terror and confusion.

Last month, Marks, who practices employment law, decided to tell her eldest sons about the massacre at Robb Elementary School, 1,100 miles away in Uvalde, Texas. She believed that if she didn’t tell them, they would hear about the shooting from friends or online.

Somebody came to a school with weapons he shouldn’t have had and tried to hurt kids, she told the boys. She didn’t say 19 fourth graders were killed – that seemed incomprehensible. Instead, she told them to be watchful of people at their school who didn’t belong. And she assured them they were safe, and that nothing like that would happen here.

“Kids can hear about stuff like that and assume it happens everywhere all the time,” Marks said. “I believed what I said, because the chances really are low. Now all I can say is, ‘it won’t happen twice.’ “

On Wednesday, Marks brought her two youngest sons to Ravinia Elementary School in Highland Park, where donated toys, therapy dogs and counselors awaited impacted families. The boys were eager to meet the dogs. Marks decided against having them meet a counselor.

“I felt like the 8-year-old would think maybe I’m having him see someone because something’s wrong with him or maybe he’s not feeling enough about this,” Marks said. “I’d rather just follow his lead and give him some time.”

Psychologists and therapists in Highland Park emphasized that the emotional needs of each child who witnessed the mass shooting would be different. For some, open conversation with family members can suffice. Others who experience prolonged symptoms of trauma, such as trouble sleeping, aversion to crowds, nightmares and separation anxiety, should consider professional help, they said.

Alex Ochoa, a clinical social worker with Family Services of Glencoe, a town that borders Highland Park, met with about 15 people affected by the shooting between Tuesday and Thursday. She said parents reported their children having difficulty sleeping during two nights of thunderstorms across the Chicago metropolitan area. Young children asked parents, “Is the bad guy here? Is he coming to get us?”

“I recommended keeping them close, helping them fall asleep by remaining in the room, letting them know what they can do to access them,” said Ochoa. “And it’s important to answer all their questions.”

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman.
Jordan Behn, 19, pets a crisis response support dog at the memorial site for the Highland Park shooting.

Ashlee Jaffe’s 5-year-old son had plenty.

A 39-year-old pediatric physiatrist in Philadelphia, Jaffe was visiting family in Northbrook, Ill., over the holiday weekend. She took photos of the very beginning of the parade, when neighborhood children walk the route on bicycles and tricycles festooned with streamers and American flags, their pet dogs in tow. Then came the first responders, Highland Park’s police and fire departments, then the high school marching band.

A few minutes after most of Highland Park’s first responders passed by, a bullet struck Jaffe’s hand. She dove for her son, pulling him by a leg and shoving him underneath the bench they had been sitting on, inadvertently smearing blood on his face and leg.

Sprinting from the scene, her son saw a man with multiple chest wounds, blood staining his shirt. He struggled to make sense of it.

“My son guessed the paramedics painted around the wounds in red paint, so the doctors would know where they were,” Jaffe said.

The boy has suffered sleepless nights, complaining of a headache and a stomachache. Asked what would make it feel better, he said talking about the parade might help.

He guessed that maybe someone was shooting at balloons, accounting for the loud bangs. He asked if parades always end like this. And he was eager to see the stitches in Jaffe’s hand when she removed the bandage.

He wanted to know if the shooter had been caught, and he wanted to know his name.

“We answered all of his questions, and then he wanted to talk to his grandma, so we FaceTimed her and he asked all the same questions,” Jaffe said.

After speaking with her son’s pediatrician, she’s also holding off on therapy, for now.

“I can’t believe that I have to explain to my son what a shooter is,” Jaffe said. “I can only hope this is the only mass shooting he’ll ever be a part of.”

Older children in Highland Park told therapists and parents they imagined they might one day be witness to a mass shooting, but felt safe at the parade.

“What I heard expressed was that they were more on edge at school and felt prepared if something happened at school,” said Moravek, the high school psychologist. “But they did not feel prepared at the parade and were shocked that something happened there.”

Jaffe said an FBI investigator who interviewed her shared that other victims and witnesses had described the middle and high school students at the parade as the most competent in the immediate aftermath of the attack, identifying appropriate cover and shelter and leading the way.

High school counselors have told parents to watch for symptoms like eating disorders and a lack of motivation to do activities that once excited their kids. Many of the students and parents have expressed a desire to advocate for gun control measures as an outlet for their emotions, asking counselors how they can get politically involved, Moravek said.

Gun control was a major factor in keeping the Marks family in Illinois during the pandemic, Michelle said. They considered moving back to her home state of Texas. But she said they couldn’t square Texas’s gun culture and comparatively lax gun control laws with the values they wanted to impart to their sons.

“I grew up a Texan, and I used to be proud of it, but the world has changed,” she said. “Is it ironic that we decided to stay in Illinois and this happens? Yeah. There’s nowhere to go in this country to escape this.”