Talking to kids about the Coral Ridge shooting

Shooting victim Andrea Farrington was a playologist at the Iowa Children's Museum. -- photo by Adam Burke
Shooting victim Andrea Farrington was a playologist at the Iowa Children’s Museum. — photo by Adam Burke

When Bonnie Lieberman arrived at the Coral Ridge Mall shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday, June 12, she had planned on a quiet night of family fun. She and her husband, Scott, had brought their son, Tyler, 8, and their daughter, Olivia, 4, to skate at the mall’s ice rink.

“Our son was asking if he could go on the ice without us, and we were going back and forth with him about waiting until we were all ready,” said Lieberman. “Then I heard the shots near the food court.”

It wasn’t until Lieberman saw other mall-goers running away from the food court, towards the exits near the Iowa Children’s Museum (ICM) and the Marcus Cinema that she understood: “At first, I thought something fell or crashed in the food court.”

She and her husband scooped up their children, telling them to move, and move fast. Mall employees ushered the Liebermans and the other families on the rink and in the food court towards a loading dock. “We were about to hide in the bathroom, but then we saw the workers running too,” said Lieberman, who, like her children, was wearing ice skates when she fled.

“It was scary going through the parking lot,” Lieberman recalled. “We didn’t know if the shooter was out there or what was going on.”

What was going on was this: Alexander Kozak, 22, Coral Ridge Mall security guard, had shot Andrea Farrington, 20, three times in the back before fleeing the scene. Farrington — an employee of the Iowa Children’s Museum whose family and friends remember her as energetic, cheerful, and kind — was reportedly one of several women who had complained about sexual harassment from Kozak in the weeks and days leading up to the attack.

Earlier that night, Kozak had returned to his home in North Liberty, retrieved a legally purchased gun, and drove back to the mall, arriving around 7:30 p.m. When shots rang out at 7:31 p.m., Farrington was working in an ICM kiosk near the mall’s carousel.

Emergency service response to the scene was fast (“By the time we got out to the [parking] lot, there were cops there,” Lieberman recalled), and though they apprehended Kozak shortly thereafter, Farrington died from her wounds.

The tragedy sparked national outrage in the hours that followed, and trended on Facebook and Twitter the next morning while journalists and bloggers raised questions about gun control and gendered violence. The Lieberman family, meanwhile, though not in danger (Kozak confessed to premeditated murder shortly after his arrest) were left shocked and facing the difficult task of talking to their children about the incident.

How do we talk to our children about public violence, and gendered violence in particular?

Whether children witness incidents like this in-person or hear about them through news media, questions abound in the wake of such traumatic events. Although the Lieberman’s young daughter “was most concerned about leaving her shoes behind,” their son asked more questions.

“He had a look of fear in his face as he was running through the parking lot,” said Bonnie Lieberman. “The following day, he said that ‘yesterday was scary.’”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s website offers tips for parents, including examples of potentially helpful and harmful language. In general, the Network encourages frank and calm discussion:

Try to maintain a balanced perspective. On one hand, do take your child’s reactions seriously. Don’t say that ‘It wasn’t so bad.’ Don’t think ‘If we don’t make a big deal, she will forget all about it.’ On the other hand, don’t decide that the trauma was so bad that your child will never recover. Instead, try to maintain a hopeful belief that your child will heal and that your family will recover from the event as well.

Scott and Bonnie Lieberman told their children that Andrea Farrington died from her injuries, and “that the proper response during an incident like this is to run away and let the police do their job.” (Olivia suggested the family carry swords the next time they went to the mall.)

Lieberman, who describes her family as “a pretty strict no-gun family,” also talked to her children about using their words to cope with conflict instead of physical aggression, adding, “this incident has just added to our normal ongoing discussion of the danger of guns.”

Beyond gun violence, how do we talk about other factors leading to traumatic events?

According to some experts, gun safety isn’t the only issue parents should consider discussing with their children in the wake of traumatic public events like Andrea Farrington’s murder. Elizabeth Oshrin Parker, a therapist and Doctoral student in the University of Iowa’s Couples and Family Therapy department, expressed concern about parent-child conversations focusing on gun safety, exclusively.

“The gun is not the biggest problem here,” said Parker, noting that, though his permit has since been revoked, Kozak carried a firearm legally at the time of the shooting. “He could have used a knife,” Parker continued. “The problem is that this man thought he had a right to treat women a certain way. When he was disciplined for doing so he killed not the person who disciplined him, but the woman who reported him.”

“The problem is that this man thought he had a right to treat women a certain way. When he was disciplined for doing so he killed not the person who disciplined him, but the woman who reported him.”


— Elizabeth Oshrin Parker

Parker hopes that when discussing the incident at Coral Ridge Mall, parents will talk to their children about the purportedly misogynistic motives behind this kind of violence. She also stresses that such conversations should be age-appropriate: “The older the child the more detail you can use. For younger children it might be best to start talking about the basic rights that all humans deserve. ”

She also recognizes that the parents of children who haven’t been directly affected may elect not to bring the issue up at all. “If you live in a certain demographic, then you have a choice,” she said. “If you aren’t exposed to this kind of violence on a regular basis, protected by either geographic or economic shields, then you have a choice. That’s a wonderful privilege, being able to choose whether or not to talk to your kids about this kind of thing. For many people in many places, though, these conversations aren’t optional. You’ve got to talk.”

When preparing to talk about misogyny and violence with their children, Parker suggests that parents consider the lessons that boys, in particular, pick up at home and through the media. “What are we teaching our sons?” she asks, and, “What was [Kozak] taught? And other men like him?” Conversations not just about consensual touching, but consensual contact in general are key, Parker says, because they help establish “the fact that women have worth and the right to say ‘no’” to any form of unwanted attention.

But what happens when a woman says “no,” and the attention persists? In the wake of Farrington’s murder, many — especially bloggers on feminist sites like Jezebel — are wondering how women and girls can be expected to report inappropriate behavior when the cost of that self-protection may be one’s life.

“That’s a tough one,” said Parker. “It’s important to tell boys and girls that Farrington didn’t do anything wrong. Women have the right to make decisions that make them feel safe.” Instead, she hopes parent-to-child — and parent-to-parent — conversations will address the lessons learned by those who will grow up to have the greatest amount of social power.

The crux of that conversation? “The price of power is respect and responsibility,” said Parker. “Even kids need to know that.”

Additional resources and tips for talking to children about traumatic events can be found through the Crisis Management Institute and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.