12/18/2012 02:12 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

The Tragedy in Newtown: A Renewed Call for Education

The world is in mourning from the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. and the 27 innocent lives lost. As the investigators work to piece together the motivation of the young gunman, the country and the world remain in shock over our failure to protect our young children. We also stand inspired by the heroism shown by Newtown's dedicated teachers, administrators, and first respondents.

Newtown has raised discussion on a range of important issues: mental health, gun control, safe schools, caring communities, public safety issues, and violence. As president of an institution of higher education that prepares educators and human services professionals, and as a trained social worker myself, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on this tragedy and to make resources available on how to talk with others and to cope. We all share in the responsibility to ensure a safe environment for our children.

In recent years, many have begun to question the value of college-level education. As I reflect on the Newtown situation, I saw the fruits of strong education and training in action. A college education teaches knowledge, but it also offers opportunities for developmental growth. It leads to professionals with the courage, confidence, and poise to respond as needed and as seen in the teachers in Newtown. They showed a commitment to their children and demonstrated unbelievable caring and calm -- a compassionate, problem-solving orientation that many of us could only hope to offer in the same situation. These caring professionals focused on positive talk while they faced the horrendous: "Let me see your smile." The good guys are coming." "I love each and every one of you." Their words allayed the children's fears.

At Wheelock College, we care deeply about educating professionals who can rise to the height of the challenges they face. We do that by wedding professional education with the liberal arts. This may seem an educational technicality, but it is not. It's the best way we know to enable our students and graduates to develop the emotional intelligence, empathy, and care needed to succeed and to acquire the deep understanding of human nature needed to work well in today's diverse world. This knowledge comes from reading and discussing fiction, from engaging in theater and role plays, from reading history and understanding how to avoid the mistakes of the past to create the future of our dreams.

Professional education in a liberal arts context educates our students to be critical thinkers -- to be open to learning and to new ways of seeing options and opportunities. It creates citizens who know how to examine and solve complex problems -- educated citizens who can, for example, embrace gun control or advocate for less violence in the media or in video games while still finding ways to honor important national values like freedom and choice. Now more than ever, we see the importance of research on the impact of violence and on the impact of mental health issues in schools. We know the importance of identifying best practices and in having highly-trained teachers and social workers to respond to these complex concerns. We are reminded of the importance of changing our national dialogue from violence to peace.

The mission of Wheelock College is clear: to improve the lives of children and families. Living that mission in our classrooms and programs means that our students receive a values -- centered education. We want to prepare them to become leaders and advocates -- and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Through their time in the classroom and learning from experts in the field, our graduates are prepared to do what is needed and what is right. Through our shared commitment to improving the lives of children and families, they enter the workforce with a strong sense of social responsibility, of hope and courage to speak out and advocate for change-change for the circumstances of the individual, the community, and society.

President Obama spoke eloquently last evening in Newtown, Conn. He reminded us of our shared responsibility to rise in the way we all know we must to do right by all children. He asked us to admit that we can and must do better to educate all children and to create the schools and communities that will enable them to grow and learn. Only then can they serve our nation as teachers, social workers, entrepreneurs, nurses, doctors, firefighters, police officers, clergy -- life paths that express their passions and that create the communities and the nation that we all aspire to have.

Support materials to help adults and teachers help children, especially young children, deal with this violence are available. We suggest a piece developed by Wheelock professor of early childhood education Diane Levin, entitled "Talking to Young Children About Newtown" at the following link.

There are other resources designed to offer social and emotional support to those who need assistance processing, understanding, or coping with tragedy or grief. Families and communities may find those developed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) helpful:

Children and Firearms
Children and Grief
Understanding Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents
Disaster and Trauma Resource Center

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) provides suggestions for answering kids' questions about the news that are helpful in the current situation and beyond.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has tips for students, schools, adults, families, responders, and health professionals.

Additional resources are available from the State of Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Mental Health.

We honor those lost in Newtown when we grow and learn from this tragedy.