Informal Network Brings Help To Officials Coping With School Traumas

By Meg Sommerfeld — May 20, 1992 5 min read
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Just hours after a shooting rampage by a gunman holding 80 students hostage at a high school in Olivehurst, Calif., help for school officials began to arrive from some people with a painful but uniquely valuable perspective to share.

Two mental-health professionals who had been on the scene shortly after a bloody attack on a Stockton, Calif., school playground in 1989 quickly embarked early this month on a two-hour drive to Olivehurst to assist counselors at the scene of this newest crisis.

Joined by a Stockton County psychiatrist and two clinical social workers, the two veterans of tragedy were dispatched to help the Lindhurst High School staff cope with an ordeal that left four dead and nine wounded. (See Education Week, May 13, 1992.)

Over the next week, administrators in Olivehurst, a town of 10,000 located 45 miles north of Sacramento, were to receive words of guidance from several educators who had experienced violent crises in their own communities.

Five days after the incident, Lindhurst’s principal, Ron Ward, met Patricia Busher, the principal of the Stockton elementary school where 5 children had been slain and 31 wounded three years ago. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1989.)

Lindhurst officials were also contacted by Richard Streedain, the principal of the Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Ill., where one child was killed and four wounded in a armed attack in 1988.

Talking with those who had been through similar experiences and viewing news footage about how the Hubbard Woods school had responded to its incident helped educators respond more effectively to the crisis in Olivehurst, according to Superintendent Peter Pillsbury.

“Seeing they had gone back to school that day on Friday and had school on Saturday really gave me the strength to support getting our kids back in the high schools as fast as we could,’' Mr. Pillsbury said.

Informal Links Established

The efforts of educators to reach out to their colleagues in such situations are not unusual, according to Ronald Stephens, the director of the National School Safety Center in Pepperdine, Calif. While no official network exists, informal links have developed between administrators who have been suddenly thrust into handling a violent situation.

“We may be seeing the beginning of a whole new field of public service here,’' observed Mr. Stephens, adding that the crises schools experience today are “much more dramatic and severe than we’ve seen years ago.’'

Most of this collaboration, Mr. Stephens noted, has occurred among educators who have dealt with crises initiated by an external intruder. Although such attacks account for only about 2 percent of all violent incidents in schools, he explained, intrusions are generally the most dangerous and are most likely to generate intensive media coverage.

In 1989, the center brought together eight administrators whose schools had experienced violent crises to discuss their experiences in a meeting at Columbia University. (See Education Week, Oct. 4, 1989.)

In addition to providing a cathartic experience for participants, the meeting yielded material for a film and a set of written guidelines the center has created to help train school administrators in crisis prevention and management.

After meeting each other at the seminar, Mr. Streedain of Winnetka and Ms. Busher of Stockton stayed in touch to discuss how the healing process was unfolding in their communities.

“I just think it’s helpful to have someone to compare notes with,’' said Mr. Streedain."Every situation is unique, but what we know about the process of trauma is very similar.’'

Lessons Shared

An earlier example of such cooperation occurred in the wake of a 1986 attack on a Cokeville, Wyo., school in which 150 students were taken hostage by two intruders. Although none of the students were killed, many were badly burned by the explosion of a bomb wielded by the attackers.

Schools counselors received help from Henry Tarke, a mental-health official who had assisted victims of a 1984 massacre at a fast-food restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., in which 21 were killed and 19 wounded.

Following the San Ysidro incident, Mr. Tarke developed a set of written guidelines about coordinating response to a violent crisis, which he has distributed to mental-health officials in Cokeville, Stockton, and elsewhere.

Cokeville school officials said they were able to benefit from both successes and mistakes made after the San Ysidro tragedy. One such lesson concerned the role of the actual site of the crime in helping survivors deal emotionally with their trauma.

In San Ysidro, community pressure had led to the leveling of the restaurant in order to remove any visible reminder of the massacre. Unfortunately, “When [survivors] needed to go back and come to grips with the scene, they were unable to do that,’' noted the Cokeville school’s psychologist, Noel Sandell.

In light of San Ysidro’s experience, Cokeville administrators decided to keep their school open all summer so that students and their families could walk through the room where the incident occurred. “They essentially reclaimed that space,’' Mr. Sandell recalled.

Mr. Sandell also consulted experts on post-traumatic stress at the Program in Trauma, Violence, and Sudden Bereavement of the University of California at Los Angeles.

The U.C.L.A. program has advised numerous communities that have experienced catastrophic events, whether natural or of human genesis. For example, the program provided guidance for two years to school faculty members and local clinicians after a tornado collapsed a school-cafeteria wall in Newburgh, N.Y., killing nine students.

Understanding the Trauma

Another educator who has taken an active role in sharing information on school crises is Bob Watson, who was superintendent of the Greenwood, S.C., schools when a gunman killed two students and wounded seven others at an elementary school in 1988.

As a result of the experience of responding to the incident, Mr. Watson and four other district officials wrote a book on crisis management.

Today, Mr. Watson conducts annual workshops on school safety for the National School Boards Association. He currently serves as superintendent of the Traverse City, Mich., schools, where he has made a top priority of ensuring that all district schools have safety plans.

Reflecting on the tragedy in South Carolina, Mr. Watson recalled that Mr. Streedain of Winnetka had made a special effort to reach out to him.

“The perspective that [Mr. Streedain] had was his understanding of the trauma that people were going to go through in the months following the incident,’' he observed. “At the time I didn’t know that he was right, but I found out later he was.’'


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