Responding in Scouting to tragedy

Speaking with young people about tragic world events

Liam Morland, August 2, 2020

The news started to trickle out on a springtime Saturday afternoon: There was an active shooter in rural Nova Scotia. As the day wore on, every visit to a newspaper web site showed a higher death toll. By Sunday morning, 22 people had been murdered including a member of the RCMP who had tried to stop the killings. It was the largest mass shooting in Canada since 1873.

Our next troop meeting was Wednesday. What would I say?

Dealing with tragic news can be challenging. We can't ignore tragic news, in particular if it scary to young people. Scouting must be a place that is and feels safe. Scouting is engaged in the world, doing our part to make the world a better place. Scouting must be and be seen to be politically-neutral.

Find out what they know and correct misconceptions

Ask for a volunteer to describe what happened. Ask if anyone else would like to add to the description. Great detail is not needed; we're not analyzing the event like in a current affairs class. What is important is an understanding of the basic facts of what happened. If the description of the event is missing some key fact, you can add that.

Your youth members may offer incorrect information about what happened. It is important to not spread incorrect information, but also to not turn the discussion into a debate about what happened or how it ought to be interpreted. You could say, "The news sources that I have seen said that what happened is...". You can acknowledge that not every news source says the same thing and that there are different perspectives on the event. Remember, we're trying to help young people understand and feel safe; the focus is not teaching about what happened.

Generally answer questions about the situation. Suggest to your youth members that if they want to learn more in details, they can speak to their parents who can help them find a suitable news source. Parents will differ in how much they want their children to know about world events.

Offer perspective and comfort

Tell the youth that what you see in the news is usually the most extreme and scary aspect of what happened. The media does this because it attracts viewers, even if it is not a balanced view on the situation.

For example, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, the news was filled with images of violence, riot, and looting. But peaceful protests were probably more prevalent. Find an example of this and mention it.

Ask people about how they are feeling about the situation. If young people are feeling scared, reassure them that scary events are very rare, protests almost always happen in non-residential parts of the city, or whatever other fact puts the situation in perspective.

Maintain routines

Just talking about the situation helps, but don't let a scary topic dominate. Continue to hold your troop meetings with the regular activities. This shows that life goes on and we remain in control of our part of it.

Fly your flag at half-mast

This is often an appropriate statement of mourning, a visible symbol of recognition of the event.

Remain politically neutral

Scouting is non-political. One of the reasons why it is so successful is because it cuts across many of the lines that divide society. Supporters of left, centre, and right politics all agree on the value of young people living together in camp, learning leadership and teamwork skills, and enjoying outdoor fellowship.

Even for events were the event itself is politically-neutral, like a mass murder, there may be a political dimension to the response. Do we need more gun control, harsher enforcement, or something else? Other events can be more difficult: Is it a riot or a protest? Often both are happening.

It can be difficult to be seen to be politically-neutral, but it is so important. Scouting is rare in that it bring together people from all across the political spectrum. This is a valuable and important part of the Scouting Movement. If Scouting becomes associated with one or another political persuasion, that will undermine our ability to serve all young people.

Remember that you're already taking action

It is important to understand the nature of the role that Scouting plays in improving society. Scouting is non-political: We don't lobby for particular policy proposals; we don't demonstrate for or against a political cause. Our work is at a more fundamental level. We help young people develop the leadership skills that they can use outside of Scouting to advance whatever cause they choose. We expose young people to values and character development which will shape what causes they choose.

We are already doing something about whatever troubling events are happening in the world. We don't need to attend a rally or display the slogan of a cause for us to be able to say that we are doing something. Doing so may undermine our appearance of politically neutrality.

Mr. Rogers famously said that in scary situations, young children should "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." By learning skills like first aid, young people are already preparing to become those helpers.

At the beginning of our troop meeting, we had our flag break ceremony, including lowering the flag to half-mast and a moment of silence for the victims in Nova Scotia. Following flag break, I lead a troop discussion about the events, based on the above ideas. Then we learned some first aid, tied some knots, and played a game. Scouting goes on.