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Cautioning against the cold

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BEMIDJI — A rosy-cheeked child trudges through the snow on a winter day. With watery eyes and a sniffly nose, he reaches into his pocket to retrieve the house key mom or dad gave him and comes up empty-handed. Alone, in the cold, with nowhere to go.

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Many people may remember when they were “latchkey” kids. How many of us would have known what to do in case of an emergency?

After last week’s death of a 6-year-old girl in Bemidji from hypothermia, a lot of parents are having a safety discussion with their children. Some don’t know exactly what to say. Children are told not to talk to strangers, so who should they turn to if they need help?

“That would certainly be a troublesome issue for a child,” said Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools.

Much like a fire drill or advising children about not talking to strangers, parents and caregivers should talk with children about cold temperature safety, said Carma Hanson, coordinator with Safe Kids Grand Forks in Grand Forks, N.D., which also serves northwest Minnesota.

While each child is different and each home situation is different, Hanson said, some basic information is universal. Talk to the children about cold temperature safety so they know that conditions can turn dangerous, and turn dangerous quickly, she said.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, which drops body temperature rapidly. Once the core body temperature is below 95 degrees, the heart, nervous system and other organs don’t work properly, causing confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and severe shivering. Skin can become frostbitten at 28 degrees.

Hanson said to make sure children are dressed appropriately for the outdoors when they leave the house, including hats and mittens or gloves. Stress the importance of dressing properly.

If children do get locked out of the house, or find themselves outside during cold temperatures, have a backup plan in place, Hanson said. Communicate that plan with the children. That backup plan can include stashing a key on the property or having the child carry a key, such as when “latchkey” kids were more prevalent in society. Even homes that use key codes for entrance, such as on garage doors, those machines can sometimes malfunction in extreme weather conditions, Hanson said.

Get to know your neighbors, Hanson said. If possible, establish a safety house with them in case of emergency.

In town, children should know if there is a nearby business, such as ones Hanson described as a “name tag” place, where children can go to ask employees with a name tag for help or to use the businesses’ telephone.

Above all, Hanson reminded, parents and caregivers need to communicate with the child so they understand the importance of the issue. Especially in cold temperatures, people can get disoriented quickly, so the more the issue is at top of mind, the better chances for a safe outcome.

Hess said it’s a high priority for the school district to safeguard every child’s well-being and that safety is part of classroom curriculum.

“It’s part of our policy and procedure from Day 1,” he said.

Hess said the schools communicate with students and parents about school closures and emergency communication plans. Parents need to have a contingency plan for emergencies at home as well.

This school year has seen an unusually high number of weather incidents. Looking back five years, Hess said there have been years with no weather incidents causing early closures, late starts or calling off school completely. There have been nine so far this year.

Hess added that 80 percent of the students in the Bemidji school district are bused in, and drivers watch to make sure students arrive home safely. Hess also asserted that, contrary to rumors, the 6-year-old girl who died was not waiting for a school bus.

The district sends out newsletters to parents when cooler weather sets in, reminding parents to dress children appropriately and prepare for emergencies. Newsletters are distributed throughout the winter, Hess said.

Although social media is snowballing in the wake of the Bemidji girl’s death, Hess said there hasn’t been a rash of parents asking him about how the district is handling the situation.

“Most people understand the district doesn’t have any issue related to this case,” Hess said.

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Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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