'Crisis Consultants' Share Lessons They Learned From School Violence
New York City--The room at Columbia University here last week was completely silent, except for the sound of traffic outside, as Patricia Busher, a Stockton, Calif., principal, recalled the moment last January when a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle on her school's playground.
When the firing stopped at Cleveland Elementary School, five students were dead and 30 others were wounded.
"Somehow, you separate yourself from yourself, and you can do what you have to do, even though you're literally stuffing someone's intestines back into his body," Ms. Busher said quietly.
Living with the memories may take the most strength, she said. "We have seen more blood and mutilation than anyone would ever want to see in a lifetime."
Heads around the room nodded in agreement and sympathy--not because the school officials present had heard the story before, but because they had lived it.
This was an unprecedented meeting of principals, administrators, and others who, in recent years, have had to deal with a violent event at school: children and teachers taken hostage, bombs exploding, students killing teachers and each other, and armed intruders shooting randomly at schoolchildren.
Sponsored by the National School Safety Center, an institute funded by the U.S. Justice Department and located at Pepperdine University in Encino, Calif., the meeting was described by the small group attending as "cathartic."
They had been brought together, however, not so much for healing as to share what they learned with other educators nationwide.
The nssc has compiled the group's recommendations and included them in the draft of a resource paper that will be made available to other schools and districts to help them design a "crisis prevention and response plan."
Such a plan, the panelists said, will improve a school community's chances of surviving such a tragedy, and will also help schools avoid potential liability.
And planning, they agreed, begins with an awareness that disaster can strike anywhere.
As Edward Muir, school-safety representative for the United Federation of Teachers in New York, said, "There is a random mix of maniacs and guns in this world, and it is only a spin of the wheel before they show up at your school."
"This has got to be the best collection of 'crisis consultants' anywhere in the country," Ronald D. Stephens, nssc's executive director, said at last week's meeting.
The draft they developed offers direction on how to increase school security, and provides details on how to work through a crisis. The topics include outlining staff roles and responsibilities, dealing with the media and with parents, arranging transportation for students, offering counseling and providing outlets for grief, and emphasizing a school's safety after the incident.
The nssc also plans to develop an educational video on crisis prevention for schools .
The educators gathered around the table at Teacher's College last week described how each of their districts developed new school-security and crisis-response plans after their respective tragedies.
Richard Streedain, principal of Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Ill., said his district's revamped crisis plan helped reassure parents and staff members, who had had to work through their shock not just once, but on two other occasions when similar incidents occurred elsewhere.
In May 1988, a woman walked into a 2nd-grade classroom at Hubbard Woods with two handguns and fatally shot one student and wounded five others.
The terror returned later that year when a gunman walked into a Greenwood, S.C., elementary school and opened fire, killing two students and injuring nine others.
And Hubbard Woods' families relived their tragedy the following January, after the worst school shooting to date occurred in Stockton.
"The parents thought nothing like this would ever happen once, much less be repeated so soon after ," Mr. Steedain said.
After each incident elsewhere, Winnetka parents were called in to "talk it out."
Then, with their help and that of other community members, the school worked to upgrade security. It has since hired a security guard, and parents volunteer to help monitor hallways for strangers, Mr. Steedain said.
The district has also hired a full-time nurse at each school. A part-time nurse was at Hubbard Woods at the time of the shooting and is said to have saved several lives. A full-time social worker was also hired to continue counseling efforts.
In Largo, Fla., increasing security became a disciplinary issue after a 15-year-old student shot and killed an assistant principal and wounded two others last year in a crowded high-school cafeteria. He was aided in the attack by another student who also had a gun.
"Our young people live in a world of violence and instability, but the schools had been an island of safety," said Marilyn Heminger, principal of Pinellas Park High School in Largo.
"After the shooting happened," she continued, "that safe world was disrupted, and it's never really been the same. It impacted the whole community in a way I couldn't believe."
As a result of the incident, Ms. Heminger said, her district now has an automatic expulsion policy for students caught with weapons in school.
It was also discovered later that the student involved in the Largo killing had been treated in a mental hospital, but released when his insurance coverage ran out. Although mental-health officials knew the troubled boy had returned to school, they had not notified Ms. Heminger of his instability.
Today, more effort is made to share records among local agencies, she said.
On the day of the shooting, she said, the school's human-resources officer--Florida's term for an official who is part police officer, part law-enforcement educator--was home sick. New district policy requires that an officer be in each school every working day without exception.
Mr. Steedain acknowledged that such measures cost money and may be considered too much of a luxury by some school boards. But he added that, "somehow, we have to get across the message that this is a much broader issue than just money."
"School boards must be educated to understand that the longer the symptoms of post-traumatic stress are treated, the more likely the children will recover fully," Ms. Busher of Stockton said.
Many at the meeting said their students still suffer from aftershock.
Max Excell, principal of Cokeville Elementary School in Cokeville, Wyo., said some of his students still panic if a bad thunderstorm knocks out the electricity and leaves the school in darkness, or if a car backfires and reminds them of gunfire.
In May 1986, the entire school was taken hostage by a couple armed with several guns and a homemade bomb.
Crowding 150 people into one classroom, the couple held the school hostage for more than two hours while Mr. Excell mediated their demands with the police.
The principal described the heroics of teachers, who kept the children--including Mr. Excell's own daughter--quiet with stories and songs. But the bomb was accidentally detonated and the room exploded "like a mushroom cloud," he said, blowing out the ceiling and setting the room and everyone in it on fire.
To Mr. Excell, it was "divine intervention" that saved the lives of all the children and staff members involved, though many were badly burned.
The Cokeville students' flashbacks are not uncommon, according to Kathi Nader, a psychiatrist with the University of California's Neuropsychiatric Institute, who has been studying the effects of violence on children.
Children often feel a lack of trust, irritability, hyperactivity, and guilt following such an incident, she said. And observers may notice a distinct drop in self-esteem.
Children also often need to reenact the incidents in play and must be allowed to talk out their feelings, Ms. Nader advised. Teachers should also provide activities to help them work out their grief.
Mr. Steedain from Winnetka said his students responded well to certain rituals, such as memorial services, and a ceremony at sunrise on the anniversary of the shooting.
The most important step in beginning the healing process, Ms. Nader and the educators agreed, is reopening the school and returning to normal as soon after the crisis as possible.
According to Ms. Nader, the severity of trauma can be lessened by planning and intervention before the crisis occurs.
Often, school officials will be reluctant to consider planning for a crisis, noted Daniel Carden, former principal of the West End Christian School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where two heavily armed men held a group of elementary students hostage for more than 12 hours in February 1988.
"It's like a will," he said. "People are afraid to write one because they think they will die if they do."
Planning, argued George Margolies, an education lawyer from Rockville, Md., could also go a long way toward protecting a school from liability. "The concern of liability looms over the whole issue of crisis management," he said.
But P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, also pointed out that "there is no cookbook model of what to do."
"It's my suspicion that we are just at the beginning of a long road that will lead to safer schools," he said.
A draft of the resource paper is available from the National School Safety Center, 16830 Ventura Blvd., Suite 200, Encino, Calif., 91436.