For Parkland Students and Teachers, Wrenching Questions Surround Return to School
Holly Van Tassel-Schuster has not been back to her classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School since she left it after the mass school shooting there last week, changing her life and her town in an instant.
But she knows it remains largely untouched.
Students’ backpacks are piled up where they left them, inaccessible as the Parkland, Fla., campus turned into a massive crime scene cordoned off by police tape.
The 36-inch television Van Tassel-Schuster wheeled in front of the classroom door—planning to push it onto the gunman if he tried to enter—is likely still in the spot where it was moved aside as SWAT team members arrived to help escort students out of the building.
Most of those students had been hiding in a darkened closet, some trying to remain silent as their parents reassured them in one-sided cell phone conversations. Two of them had insisted on waiting in the room with Van Tassel-Schuster, holding every pair of scissors and sharp object they could gather as they waited out the attack.
Now, she and her fellow teachers are preparing themselves emotionally for the day when they have to go back.
“People don’t seem to understand,” said Van Tassel-Schuster, an alumna of Stoneman Douglas High School who has taught English there for 12 years. “Some of the things we saw and experienced, if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand it. A lot of us are even having a hard time even talking to our loved ones because they can’t.”
Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student who’d been expelled from the school, killed 17 students and educators and injured 15 others with a powerful AR-15 rifle, authorities said. It was the largest ever shooting at a U.S. high school.
As funerals continued Monday, the Broward County school district prepared for the enormous emotional and logistical challenges of re-opening the campus and helping its 3,300 students resume classes.
Teachers and staff will return Friday, a day "dedicated to meeting staff members’ needs” with counseling and support services, the district said Monday night. The school plans to hold a voluntary orientation for students and parents on Sunday with a goal of resuming classes on a modified schedule Feb. 27.
‘There’s No Handbook for This’
Teachers and district leaders said they have many questions to answer before they will be prepared for that day: How should they talk to students about the events of that day? What are signs they should look for to ensure students are getting the attention they need? What kinds of physical security measures will it take to reassure anxious students and families? How will they teach while they are also still grieving?
What will it feel like to walk back into the rooms that played host to the most traumatic event in their lives?
Students lost even more than the friends and teachers, said Adeena Teres, who teaches science at Stoneman Douglas.
“They lost the sense of school as a safe place,” she said.
Teres has been meeting nightly with a group of fellow teachers to talk about their experiences and concerns. Many have spent hours with counselors at a local public library.
The Broward Teachers Union has consulted with teachers who went through school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, union President Anna Fusco said.
“They said ‘We’re going to be real. There’s no handbook for this,’” Fusco recalled.
Among their advice: Don’t try to move too quickly through the recovery process.
Stoneman Douglas teachers will need other educators and mental health professionals with them as they do even seemingly routine things, like rearranging classroom furniture in preparation for students’ return, Fusco said.
Van Tassel-Schuster said alumni groups have talked about walking toward the campus together with students on the day they return so that they don’t feel alone.
“We want to have a game plan,” she said.
She also wants school leaders to walk through a timeline of what happened the day of the shooting with teachers and staff, allowing them to ask questions about the school’s safety protocols.
Van Tassel-Schuster has reached out to SWAT team members who responded to campus that day to reunite them with the teachers from the classrooms they responded to.
She’s been using a app designed to remind students about homework assignments to send her students messages of support, messages like “I love you. I miss you guys so much.”
Responding to a crisis like what happened in Parkland begins with doing psychological triage to assess the level of impact that the event had on different individuals, and to help them develop coping strategies, school psychology experts told Education Week.
Students with the most direct experience of trauma will probably need individualized support; others can be helped in smaller groups. Often, what is more powerful is simply reconnecting students, teachers, and families with their natural support systems.
“It’s going to be a long road, and what we’ve seen is there tends to be lots of support in the first couple of months. And then the supports leave, and the school is left to deal with the long-term aftermath,” said Melissa Reeves, the past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and a member of its school crisis team.
“It’s really important that there’s a continuity plan, that you have mental health professionals and school administrators working together on what these supports are going to look like in one month, two months, six months, or even a year down the road,” she said.
Parkland has had three counseling sites, a hotline, and counselors available through text message since the day of the shooting. School leaders, still processing the immediate aftermath of the events, have not yet outlined long-term counseling plans as they focus on the immediate logistical challenges of reopening the school.
Among the biggest of those challenges: relocating classes for about 900 freshman students from Building 12, where the shooting occurred. The high school, one of the largest in the district, has 13 buildings on its campus.
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said Friday that Building 12 should never be re-opened.
Some state lawmakers have said the state would pay to have the building demolished. Others have called for a memorial to be built in its place.
“This building has to come down,” State Sen. Bill Galvano told the Miami Herald on Friday. He had visited the school the day before.
“Everything was strewn across the halls from people running and dodging and there were significant blood splatters on the wall,” he said. “Like someone took a milk jug and exploded it.”
Finding space for the classes that once occupied the freshman building will be difficult, district leaders said. Even the installation of temporary classroom buildings is not something that can be arranged and carried out in as short a term as a week, Barbara J. Myrick, the general counsel of the district, said in an interview with Education Week late last week.
A Sense of Safety
Led by a group of impassioned and vocal students, much of the media conversation in the days following the shootings has focused on a call for more restrictive gun laws that would limit or prohibit the sales of powerful weapons like AR-15 rifles, particularly for people who’ve presented behavioral concerns like some teachers said they’d seen with Cruz.
“You want to go back to where the problem is,” said Greg Pittman, who worked as a Republican congressional aide in the 1980s and has taught history at Stoneman Douglas for 12 years. “The problem is, how can an 18-year-old with limited background checks get this gun? And why does the general public even need this weapon?”
Others questioned how a teenager who’d been repeatedly flagged for disciplinary and safety concerns wasn’t stopped.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Friday his office had received about 20 calls about Cruz in recent years.
The FBI said on Friday that it had failed to properly investigate a January tip from someone close to Cruz, who said he was concerned about the alleged shooter’s “disturbing social media posts” and “desire to kill people.”
Citing disciplinary records it obtained, the Washington Post reported that Cruz had “a long string of escalating disciplinary measures throughout his academic career for insubordination, profanity, disruption, fighting and assault.”
“In January 2017, when Cruz was disciplined for an alleged assault, that triggered a call for a threat assessment, a formal process by which the school determines whether a student is dangerous and how that student should be supervised and supported,” the paper reported, adding that it’s unclear whether such an assessment was even conducted.
District leaders have refused to discuss the specifics of Cruz’s disciplinary history, citing student privacy laws. In an interview with the Post, Runcie said schools need more resources and more community support to address student behavior and mental health concerns.
In addition to those issues, Stoneman Douglas teachers have started building lists of more routine security concerns they’d like to discuss with district leaders.
For example, Pittman asked, why aren’t the windows on classroom doors equipped with the same kind shatterproof glass homes in the hurricane-prone state have on their exteriors?
And parents have similar concerns.
Josh Castellanos, who has two daughters in the 11th grade at the high school, said he and a group of other parents plan to conduct research and present a list of proposals to Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers.
“When I watch the news, you see the armored vehicles and they’re breaching and they’re going into save the children,” said Castellanos, who was driving to the school to pick up his daughters Wednesday when he learned of the shooting. “But what’s being left out of that story is that that was 40 minutes after it had begun.”
“The suspect had already had lunch at Subway by the time they had breached the school,” he said, referring to a police report that showed Cruz discarded his weapon and walked away from the crime scene by blending in with the crowds of evacuating students. He later stopped to buy a drink.
He wants to explore greater training for local law enforcement about active shooter situations, increased security personnel at the school, more limited access around the campus perimeter as it opens toward the end of the day to let students leave, and options for students who were shut out of its classrooms as it rushed into lockdown mode.
Students and teachers had been in the hallways because a fire alarm had gone off near the end of the school day before they realized what was taking place and rushed to safety.
“They didn’t know were to go, and they were literally sitting targets,” said Castellanos.
One of his daughters was supposed to be on the second floor of the freshman building that day, but her class had been relocated to an auditorium because she had a substitute teacher who had to monitor an additional class, he said. His other daughter was in the band room across from building 12, where she heard all of the shots.
He doesn’t think he’ll ever feel safe again when his daughters are in a crowded place, even at school.
“I think we fell into the same safety-blanket thought that it would never happen here,” he said. “I know there’s some place like Des Moines, Iowa, or somewhere thinking ‘wow, that’s terrible, but it could never happen here.’ And, if the police force believes that and if the schools believe that, they won’t be prepared.”
There’s a special intimacy between students and teachers who were at the school that day, Castellanos said. It’s an experience even their closest family members can’t understand.
Clusters of students have met at a public park throughout the weekend, sitting in tight groups in front of a makeshift memorial to pray and talk.
Castellanos said he and other Stoneman Douglas parents, and the students themselves, will need the school to have a “huge police presence” and extra security for the long term to address their fears, something he’s not sure all public officials understand.
“They’re thinking that, alright we can do that until people feel more comfortable,” he said. “I don’t know that that will ever happen. I don’t know that they will ever feel comfortable.”