'You Have to Redefine Normal': Leading Schools in the Aftermath of a Shooting
They share an unfortunate bond—the principals and superintendents of schools and districts where unexpected gunfire shattered their peace and where the names of their schools and communities came to symbolize tragedy.
Columbine. Sandy Hook. And now Parkland.
For schools and district leaders in charge when the unthinkable happens, there is no playbook on how to pick up after the crime scene has been sanitized.
How do you balance attending funerals and consoling students, staff, and parents with trying to reopen a school building?
How do you motivate your staff to return to class when they are grieving their students and colleagues?
What steps do you take to set up long-term counseling and plan permanent memorials for the victims?
How do you handle the blame that may come from angry, grieving family members?
Do you jump into the political fray in the inevitable debates that follow over gun control and school safety?
And once you’ve plowed through all those hard questions and immediate needs, how do you manage a recovery process that will likely span years?
“People always want to know ‘when does it get back to normal?’ ” said Frank DeAngelis, who was the principal at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 when two students gunned down 13 classmates and staff members. “And, unfortunately, it does not. You really have to redefine what normal is... .”
‘You Have to Have a Plan’
Nearly two decades since the Columbine tragedy became an indelible touchstone for unimaginable violence in the haven of a school and as the pace of school shootings seems to have accelerated, the grim reality that this can happen in any school, any district, any community, is forcing some education leaders who’ve experienced the worst to write a tragedy playbook for their peers.
Joseph Erardi, the former superintendent of the Newtown, Conn., school district where 20 1st graders and 6 staff members were killed in a mass shooting in 2012, oversaw the rebuilding of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School after he arrived in 2014. He’s now working with a national K-12 administrators’ group to create a guide book on preparing for and responding to crises such as shootings and fatal bus accidents.
“You have to have a plan ... because this is such a regular occurrence now,” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “This has to be a plan—a bible—with specific points that say, ‘This is what I have to do, this is who I have to talk to’ ... It’s almost like a flight plan.”
Often after a shooting, principals and superintendents lean on the advice of their peers who’ve lived through such tragedies.
For George Roberts, who was the principal of Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, Md., when a student opened fire in the cafeteria on the first day of school in August 2012 and injured another student, that person was Bill Bond. Bond had been the principal at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., where a 14-year-old student killed three girls and injured five other students after opening fire on a prayer group in December 1997. At that time—two years before Columbine—there weren’t many K-12 leaders who’d experienced such devastating loss and trauma in their schools.
Bond, who retired in 2000 after the last class of students who’d been at the school during the shooting had graduated, became a go-to source of consolation and advice.
“One of the most powerful things [Bond] said to me was that you need to allow the community to help. You need to allow the community to offer support,” said Roberts, who now works as a principal supervisor in the Baltimore County school system.
Taking Bond’s advice to heart, Roberts said he tried to respond to every call or email as soon as possible. He catalogued every call, letter, or conversation and offer of assistance.
That meticulous record-keeping led Roberts to later spearhead a project that would help the school community with the healing process: He worked with a Baltimore artist whom a community member had recommended to paint a mural in the cafeteria where the shooting had occurred. Every student who was in the cafeteria that day dipped their hand in gray paint to spell out L-O-V-E.
But part of the benefit of connecting with Bond was having someone to talk to who knew exactly what he was dealing with, Roberts said.
After many school shootings, DeAngelis, the former Columbine principal, finds himself in a similar role, making and receiving calls to and from principals and superintendents.
In the last month, he said he has been communicating with the principal at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and high-level leaders in the Broward County school system, where the community is coping with the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 students and staff and wounded 17 others.
“There’s going to be ups and downs, and there are going to be good days, and all of a sudden something happens and your community once again is thrown into turmoil or re-traumatized,” he said.
Even nearly two decades since Columbine, things aren’t exactly normal, said DeAngelis, who retired as principal of the school in 2014, after students who were in elementary grades at the time of the shooting graduated from the school system. Students who were at the high school in 1999 are now in their mid- to late 30s. Some still call DeAngelis whenever there is another school shooting.
There Are No Easy Answers
Besides the emotional support they offer, superintendents and principals who’ve experienced shootings provide practical advice too: when and how to reopen, how to beef up security to make people feel safe, and how to navigate the delicate balance of working through grief and mourning and returning to the normal business of school, like sports, prom, and class projects.
The advice can include simple steps or detailed plans. One of the things DeAngelis learned is that schools should avoid balloons when students first return. After the shooting, parents created an archway of balloons to welcome students to their temporary school home. But the balloons started popping, and students dove for cover, he said.
That “was an eye-opener for me, that there were certain triggers.”
At Stoneman Douglas, triggers may include the sound of the fire alarm, which went off around the time of last month’s shooting.
“Prior to the 14th,...kids would automatically do their drills, but now when that system goes off, it’s going to take on a whole different meaning because they are wondering ‘is there potential danger?’” DeAngelis said.
At Columbine, lunch menus were changed to avoid serving what students were eating that day in the cafeteria when the shooting began, DeAngelis said. Teachers had to make adjustments to the curriculum. In social studies, for example, teachers avoided showing videos that included gunshots or war footage or had to prepare students in advance, he said.
There are no easy answers.
“A lot of it is trial and error, and you try to do the best that you can,” he said, “and you reach out.”
Reliving the Trauma
School leaders, who flood their schools with mental health workers and counselors in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, must be ready to deploy those resources again in the event of a shooting elsewhere.
For Roberts, it was Sandy Hook, which took place nearly four months after the Perry Hall incident and one day after the school had finished repainting the cafeteria wall for the art project. The day of the massacre, Roberts arrived at his school to find teachers and students already in the guidance counselor’s office crying over the news.
A similar scene played out last month in Aztec, N.M., where students and faculty were still raw with grief from a December shooting that killed two students, Principal Warman Hall said. Seeing the news out of Parkland so soon after their own tragedy made many of his students feel anxious, he said.
Hall, who’s still processing his own grief, said he’s reluctant to give advice to his peers. But in looking back at what happened in the shooting at his school, Hall feels certain that prior preparation helped ensure the loss of life wasn’t greater.
His rural school district, along with county emergency officials, held regular exercises to practice for various scenarios, including adverse weather events and active-shooter situations.
On at least one of those occasions, Hall’s team had to respond to an active-shooter, he said.
“Those table-top exercise events really help an administrator think through certain critical questions that guide ‘How well are safety protocols established on your campus? How certain do you feel that when you launch into a certain action because of an emergency event you can anticipate what the reactions of others that you lead with are going to be?”
“None of us feel that we are experts,” Hall said. “We did not do everything right that day, and there are circumstances out of your control. We lost two precious lives that we are still grappling with as a community.”
Districts and schools can also allow police and law enforcement to conduct drills in the buildings after school or on weekends to help them become more familiar with their surroundings.
“It’s going to, hopefully, reduce the confusion that might happen when you have a crisis,” he said.
Taking Care of Themselves
School leaders must take time to care for themselves as they are pulled in multiple directions.
For DeAngelis, that meant relying on his priest and family. Hall is taking advantage of the counseling that the school district is offering to students and staff, talking with his pastors and his church family, and spending more time at home with his family, including preparing dinners with them and attending more of his children’s extracurricular activities. Roberts found that talking to other school leaders about school safety and security and his experience has helped him heal.
It’s also important to review the response to the tragedy to assess where there may be gaps in the school’s and district’s response plans, whether procedures were followed, and whether security changes need to be made.
Amid all of that, there are almost always calls to harden school buildings. That’s the easy part, Erardi said. The hard part is knowing who poses a threat to the safety of your school community, he said.
At Perry Hall, Roberts put a lot of effort behind ensuring that students would feel comfortable reporting things that do not seem right.
That message—that the students were all family looking out for one another—was reiterated on the morning announcements. The school turned unused lockers into dropboxes for students to share anonymous notes that they may not be comfortable discussing face to face, Roberts said.
Getting Back to Teaching and Learning
At some point, school leaders must begin to shift their focus—along with that of their staff—back to teaching and learning from one that’s initially centered on student’s mental health and emotional healing, Erardi said.
In the early days after the Sandy Hook shooting, teachers didn’t assign long-term projects because the focus was still on supporting traumatized students, he said. But, ultimately, the principal has to find a way to steer the school day back to student learning.
Addressing issues related to the shooting can become the equivalent of another full-time job, Erardi said.
Hall, the Aztec High principal, has delegated certain tasks to the athletic director, who is networking with the local community to ensure that the school is getting the kind of assistance it needs. A teacher-leader is helping with communications. At Columbine, the district hired a former administrator to help with issues directly related to the shooting and its aftermath, so that the DeAngelis could focus on being a principal who was visible in classrooms and the hallways.
“You have to balance your teaching and learning day with your recovery day,” Erardi said. “And what you need to do as a school leader is that you have to surround yourself with the absolute best people.”
“I think the bottom line is that you don’t do this work in isolation, and what you must do is reach out for guidance and assistance,” he said. “What you really need to do is examine who is in your trust circle and really empower those people to persist and persevere.”
Vol. 37, Issue 26, Pages 1, 14Published in Print: April 11, 2018, as After a Shooting, What Should Principals Do?