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School Climate & Safety

20 Years After Columbine, Principals Form Network to Cope With Shootings

By Denisa R. Superville — April 16, 2019 6 min read
In January 2018, a gunman opened fire at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., killing two students. A year later, Principal Patricia Greer has joined a support group organized by and for principals across the U.S. whose schools also have been impacted by gun violence. “I hope that violence in schools never has to happen again,” said Greer. “But if it does, that’s what this group is for.”

Just days after two teenagers were shot and killed by a fellow student in a rural Kentucky high school, Principal Patricia Greer got a call from one of the few people who could understand exactly what she was experiencing.

It was Frank DeAngelis, the former principal of Columbine High School.

With Greer’s phone constantly ringing and dozens of decisions to be made, DeAngelis’ call helped clear the fog and reassured her there were other educators who understood what she was facing.

“I can’t recall the words in that conversation, to be quite honest,” Greer said of DeAngelis, who was principal at Columbine on April 20, 1999, when two students shot and killed 13 people.

“But I think there was a sense of, ‘I am going to be there to help you, other people have done this, you’re going to be able to do this.’ ”

Few principals have walked in DeAngelis’ and Greer’s shoes as leaders of schools that have been devastated by on-campus gun violence. Those who do often find themselves with questions and worries about how to manage a recovery process, but few people to turn to who can answer from lived experiences.

“You truly do feel isolated from the outside world when it comes to the next steps,” said Andy McGill, the K-12 assistant principal in the rural West Liberty-Salem school district in West Liberty, Ohio, where a student shot and injured two others, one seriously, in January 2017.

McGill persuaded the student to put down his gun and, with Principal Greg Johnson, kept the shooter in a bathroom until police arrived.

In the immediate aftermath, “I did not feel isolated from my building, from my community, even surrounding schools—you don’t feel isolated in that way because there is such an outpouring and outreach,” McGill continued. “But when the dust settles, and you are looking at what do we do next, what should we do next, those answers aren’t readily available.”

Specter of Violence

While shootings in schools that lead to injuries or deaths remain statistically rare, the specter of such violence has had a firm grip on Americans’ collective psyche since the Columbine High School massacre 20 years ago.

School leaders who have experienced the terror, the grief, and the difficult path to recovery say a new move to formalize a loose network of support will be an invaluable source of emotional and logistical support. DeAngelis, Greer, McGill, and Johnson are now part of the newly launched Principals Recovery Network, which is made up of current and former principals who’ve led schools during and in the aftermath of a shooting.

See Also: ‘I’ve Had a Lot of Survivor’s Guilt': Columbine High’s Former Principal on Healing His Community

The group was convened by the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals just before this week’s 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

The principals hope to serve as a kind of rapid-response team to offer guidance and support to their colleagues and prepare them for a “new normal” they will encounter. They want to offer a sympathetic and knowledgeable ear at a time when principals are bombarded from all sides with well-meaning support and advice.

The members also hope to apply pressure to decisionmakers about the need for more mental health care in schools for both students and staff and to advocate for additional resources to address that growing need.

The NASSP said the network will be part support organization for principals and part advocacy group that will champion policies to make schools safer.

In some ways, the Principals Recovery Network formalizes what principals who are connected through shared tragedies have been doing informally for years—reaching out to the latest members to become part of an unfortunate kinship.

Advocating for Mental Health

When a news alert of a shooting flashes on their phones, they send emails and texts to the school leader offering guidance and letting them know that they can reach out whenever they need to talk.

DeAngelis has made several of those calls since Columbine, including to many of the members of the Principals Recovery Network. So have Johnson and McGill, who were the beneficiaries of similar calls.

Michael Bennett, an assistant superintendent in the Schodack Central school district near Albany, N.Y., said one reason he is joining the group is to stress the importance of mental health services for educators and students. He also wants to prepare principals for a recovery process that has no timeline or end date.

Bennett, who was a teacher at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, N.Y., in 2004 when he was shot in the leg by a student, did not talk about the incident publicly for 14 years, until last year’s mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Bennett said he would have benefited from tapping a network like this after the shooting at Columbia High School, which later in his career he led as assistant principal. He didn’t seek help for weeks after the incident, and he only did so after his anxiety levels had built up and his superintendent recommended counseling, he said.

More than a decade after the incident, Bennett said he is still uncomfortable in large crowds, and loud noises, news coverage of shootings, and fireworks can be triggers.

“Part of this network is to look at the well-being of the principals, and [to have] good insights into what the faculty and staff are going through,” he said. “We are all pretty good at supporting the students and finding ways to support them, but when an adult says they’re OK after something like this, don’t just accept that. Keep an eye out for red flags, watch for whatever changes you may see, because it is something that will be ongoing and life-changing.”

The aftereffects of any school shooting—including those where no one was killed—can be traumatizing, said Johnson, the Salem, Ohio, principal. Although one student was seriously injured in the West Liberty-Salem shooting, the school initially celebrated that there had been no fatalities and that the injured student was able to return to school just weeks later.

But Johnson and his staff soon found out that for the students who had fled the campus during the incident thinking that someone had died, the resulting trauma was just the same as if there had been a casualty, he said.

Small Steps to Recovery

Principal Recovery Network Members

A group of principals and former principals who have led schools during or after a shooting are now part of a support network to help school leaders and their communities in the aftermath. The list includes the dates a shooting took place at these schools.

  • Elizabeth Brown, principal, Forest High School, Ocala, Fla. (April 20, 2018)
  • Jake Heibel, principal, Great Mills High School, Great Mills, Md. (March 20, 2018)
  • Ty Thompson, principal, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla. (Feb. 14, 2018)
  • Patricia Greer, principal, Marshall County High School, Benton, Ky. (Jan. 23, 2018)
  • Warman Hall, principal, Aztec High School, Aztec, N.M. (December 7, 2017)
  • Jeff Meisenheimer, principal, Lee’s Summit North High School, Lee’s Summit, Mo. (Sept. 29, 2017)
  • Greg Johnson, principal, West Liberty–Salem Middle/High School, West Liberty, Ohio (Jan. 20, 2017)
  • Andy McGill, K-12 assistant principal, West Liberty–Salem district, West Liberty, Ohio (Jan. 20, 2017)
  • Lauren Ford, former principal, Procter R. Hug High School, Reno, Nev. (Dec. 7, 2016)
  • Denise Fredericks, principal, Townville Elementary School, Townville, S.C. (Sept. 28, 2016)
  • Kevin Lein (injured in shooting), former assistant principal, Harrisburg High School, Harrisburg, S.D. (Sept. 30, 2015)
  • Stacey Ting-Senini, principal, Sparks Middle School, Sparks, Nev. (Oct. 21, 2013)
  • George Roberts, former principal, Perry Hall High School, Baltimore County, Md. (Aug. 22, 2012)
  • Andy Fetchik, former principal, Chardon High School, Chardon, Ohio (Feb. 27, 2012)
  • Michael Sedlak, former assistant principal, Chardon High School, Chardon, Ohio (Feb. 27, 2012)
  • Michael Bennett (injured in shooting), former assistant principal, Columbia High School, East Greenbush, N.Y. (Feb. 9, 2004)
  • Frank DeAngelis, former principal, Columbine High School, Littleton, Colo. (April 20, 1999)

Source: National Association of Secondary School Principals

Denise Fredericks, the principal of Townville Elementary School in Townville, S.C., said some small moves helped her school begin its healing process after a 6-year-old died in a shooting on the school’s playground in September 2016.

The school added “floating subs” to alleviate some of the stress on teachers. School leaders began announcing when fire drills would start, and would only pull the alarm when students were leaving the building. Volunteers from a local church served as “huggers” to high-five students on their way back into the building after the drills, she said.

Those at the school learned not to use balloons for celebrations because the sounds of balloons popping were a frightening reminder of the shooting to some children.

“I wished someone had told me that,” Fredericks said. “We learned it. I know it’s a little thing, but it’s a little thing that’s a big thing.”

One of the most important things principals must do, Fredericks said, is to pay close attention to the individuals in the building.

“There is no weakness in allowing someone to break if they need it,” she said. “You may have a setback now and again; that’s OK, just get back up and keep going.”

There is no blueprint for recovery, said Greer, the principal from Benton, Ky. Some of it just comes from listening to your staff and students about what would make them feel safe. Students said bag searches and wand metal detectors would make them feel safer. The school now has a metal detector, and bags are searched, Greer said.

“I would advise a principal to talk to their faculty and staff and listen to those voices—listen to what they are saying,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2019 edition of Education Week as Principals Form Network to Help After a Shooting

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