Principals must make a slew of decisions amid the fog and uncertainty that follows a school shooting.
Now, a group of principals who were thrust into that position, has created a guide to help other school leaders navigate that rocky terrain if they ever have to.
In a new Guide to Recovery, school leaders get practical tips and strategies to address the short- and long-term decisions they’ll make in the aftermath of a school shooting: from reopening, organizing mental health supports for students and staff, figuring out how to manage the flood of donations from well-wishers, to planning memorials and commemorating the incident.
Among the tips for principals on how to handle the initial days:
- Hold a staff meeting as soon as possible to brief teachers on what you know and what to expect. That initial meeting also helps principals get a handle on their staff’s “needs and concerns.”
- Set up counseling and mental health services pronto. Ensure that outside mental health specialists are vetted. Principals should also plan for grief counseling and long-term mental health supports.
- Remain visible as the school leader.
- Assess the school’s needs and share them with the public to minimize donations and goodwill that may be unhelpful.
- Designate, in conjunction with the district’s central office, a point-person who will be responsible for communicating with the public. Selecting a staff member to keep their colleagues abreast of developments is also a good idea.
A resource from those who understand
The guide, published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Principal Recovery Network—a group of school leaders who’ve led schools during or in the aftermath of a school shooting—was unveiled Monday ahead of a panel discussion with some of the network’s members.
The discussion was scheduled to take place in Littleton, Colo., at the memorial to the victims of the April 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in which 12 students and a teacher were killed by two students.
Though school shootings are statistically rare, the possibility that they may happen anywhere strikes fear into the hearts of many communities. Through the beginning of August, Education Week’s 2022 school shooting trackerhad reported 27 incidents this calendar year that injured or killed someone.
“If you had told me that Columbine could have happened in Columbine, I would have said, ‘No way,’ ” said Frank DeAngelis, the high school’s former principal.
“This is a wonderful community. I had been part of that community for 23 years as a teacher and a coach, and I was in my third year as principal. People say, ‘I can’t believe it happened here.’ But now, unfortunately, we see it’s happened in various communities, various states—different types of communities, rural communities, large communities.”
DeAngelis, a founding member of the Principal Recovery Network, is often one of the first people to contact principals who find themselves suddenly leading grieving school communities.
The guide puts to paper some of the advice DeAngelis and other network members have been dispensing over the years—and lessons they’ve learned.
Divided into five short sections, the handbook covers aspects of school leadership that may not immediately pop into a principal’s mind as they try to bring calm and normalcy to their shaken communities. In addition to the best-practice recommendations, there are testimonies and personal insights from current and former school leaders who’ve led schools in the aftermath of such tragedies.
“We did the best that we could in the moment, and we learned these things by trial and error,” said Elizabeth Brown, the former principal of Forest High School in Ocala, Fla., who wrote about listening to students’ vision for their school and their safety in the aftermath of a 2018 shooting that injured one student.
“When we began discussing all of this, we realized that this would be a very useful tool for school leaders. It’s a pro-active tool; they can read through it now.”
The document was purposefully concise, said Brown, who became principal at Forest High School after the shooting.
“Whenever I picture a school leader picking up this guide—if they’ve had an active shooter on their campus, they are picking it up at 1 [a.m.] or 2 a.m. in the morning, and thinking, ‘I cannot sleep, I’ve got to get back at the school at 5 a.m., let me look at this real quick and see what I can quickly glean from this,’ ” she said.
Student voice is important
In the long and medium-term, principals dealing with a shooting have to make decisions about when to return to school—whether to go back to the same building or use the room or wing where the incident happened—and how the school will remember the victims in the future.
A key piece underpinning the medium- and long-term recovery is listening, especially to students.
“Ensure that community stakeholders, parents, and staff are adequately consulted as decisions about changes to the building are made,” the guide recommends.
It also advises not returning to school until all funerals and memorials have been held, to avoid students and staff having to leave class to attend, and hosting a “reunification day” or “open house” for families, staff, and students before classes resume.
Other tips on going back to school:
- Return gradually to normal school work.
- Ensure teachers know how to respond to students’ questions and where to direct them for additional help.
- Develop ways to get student input throughout the recovery process.
- Don’t forget the students who are leaving the building and may not have access to the flood of mental health and other resources now being directed at their former school.
Memorials and commemorations must be managed with sensitivity, and the network suggests fielding surveys to get input from stakeholders and setting up discussions with student leadership groups.
Careful thought should also be given to the words that are used when planning how to honor the victims.
“Remembrance” and “one-year and two-year mark” may be preferable terms to “anniversary,” which might be evocative of a celebration, according the handbook. The location of the memorial also matters. Putting one on school grounds, where the public can access it during the school day, can be disruptive to students and staff and compound their grief.
Students should also be consulted on how to honor their classmates at graduation.
There is still a lot to learn
The school leaders started working on the guide in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic.
It began as “a list of random thoughts that all of us felt,” Brown said.
“Like if we had known this ahead of time, we would have probably been a better leader during that moment, during the event, or it was just things that we learned,” she said.
When the pandemic struck and pushed life online in 2020, the recovery network school leaders continued refining their best-practice toolkit.
George Roberts, a consultant administrator in Baltimore County Public Schools, was the principal at Perry Hall High School in the district when a student shot and injured another in the school’s cafeteria in August 2012.
While Roberts got advice and support from Bill Bond, the former principal of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., the scene of a 1997 school shooting, a tip-book on how to respond and what to look out for down the road would also have been a helpful planning tool, he said.
Roberts would have taken a longer view on how to anticipate future challenges, such as being ready with mental health supports when tragedy strikes another school. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn, in December 2012, occurred about four months after the shooting at Perry Hall High.
“I would have used key players of my leadership team to start planning and thinking about certain recovery aspects: How are we going to support parents? How are we going to support teachers? How are we going to support children through that? Because in the immediacy of it, you are kind of in a fog as a principal. So much is coming at you. It would have helped me create these lanes, where I would have made sure that I’d left no one unaccounted for in terms of recovery and support.”
Despite having similar experiences, the principals learned a lot about recovery from each other. Each incident is unique, Brown said.
“I never thought that the parents of the victims would be at odds with one another on what a memorial should look like,” she said. “In my naïve mind, I thought parents of victims would all agree that there needed to be a memorial…I learned a great deal about trauma, listening from those that did have fatalities, that now have memorials to those precious lives that were lost.”
Brown applauded her colleagues’ courage to revisit the most traumatic day of their careers to create this resource to help other school leaders.
“We have some who were actually injured in the attacks at their schools,” Brown said. “They have been willing to go back and relive that day in order to put together this tool.”
DeAngelis said though he hopes the Principal Recovery Network doesn’t grow any larger as a result of additional school shootings, the group will continue to add to the document.
Educators, including superintendents and school board members, can access the document for free on the NASSP’s website.
School leaders can also contact members of the network, he said.
“You never want to get to the point to say we have it all figured out, because things are changing,” DeAngelis said.