School Climate & Safety

In Newtown’s Wake, Psychologist Shares Experience From ’89 Tragedy

By Sean Cavanagh — December 18, 2012 5 min read
A mourner wipes a tear while visiting a memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting at the school's entrance on Monday in Newtown, Conn.

In the coming days and weeks, mental health professionals will attempt to help students and teachers in Newtown, Conn., recover from the unimaginable.

Stephen Brock remembers when a similarly difficult assignment was given to him.

Mr. Brock was one of several school psychologists who were asked to help children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., after a gunman opened fire on Jan. 17, 1989, killing 5 children and wounding 29 other students and one teacher, in what was at the time one of the worst instances of school violence in the nation’s history. Now, school district officials and outside authorities who are being brought in to help students and families in Newtown will face many of the same challenges that Mr. Brock once did, though he believes they also bring more experience and a broader range of strategies based on accumulated research than those available to him years before.

“We were not terribly confident in what we were doing,” recalled Mr. Brock, now a professor of school psychology at California State University, Sacramento, and the author of books on school crises and related topics. Today, he said, school psychologists “are much clearer on what we can and should be doing to support our colleagues, as well as the children they serve.”

In the days that followed the Stockton shootings, Mr. Brock, who was working at a neighboring school, was sent with another school psychologist to help in a 6th grade classroom of about 30 students, many of whom had seen the shooting, by an adult who had entered the school grounds, take place. The psychologists spent several days after the incident speaking with students and listening to their concerns, and they stayed in close contact with the classroom teacher well after then, Mr. Brock said.

See Also

Visit Education Week‘s collection page for complete coverage of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

The efforts to recover in Newtown have been made even more difficult by the death of Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary and one of the victims of last week’s killings of 26 students and staff members. Today, Newtown school district officials are receiving support from a range of organizations and experts from across the state and around the country. They include the National Association of School Psychologists. The Bethesda, Md.-based organization has a national emergency assistance team that helps districts respond to crises, and that team is consulting with the Connecticut district, offering advice on the services that adults can provide to students, said Stacy Skalski, the director of professional policy and practice for the group.

Consultations

Additional assistance has come from David J. Schonfeld, the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, in Cincinnati, who is consulting with state and local officials on how to respond to the tragedy.

Dr. Schonfeld, in an interview, said Newtown officials are likely to follow a number of strategies, some of which closely resemble those used by Mr. Brock in Stockton years ago. Adults can help by creating environments in which students are free to ask questions—even uncomfortable ones—and correct misunderstandings about what has taken place, Dr. Schonfeld said.

In other districts around the country, where school officials are struggling to determine how to discuss the Newtown shootings, teachers and other adults often wrongly assume they should avoid the subject entirely, Dr. Schonfeld said. The best approach is to discuss those events with the same depth and structure that educators apply to other topics, he argued.

“Not talking about it makes it worse,” Dr. Schonfeld said. “It suggests it’s too awful to talk about, and the [implication] is that if it’s too awful to talk about, you’re not capable of dealing with it.”

Dr. Schonfeld’s organization recently published online advice for parents and other adults looking for constructive and appropriate ways to talk about the Newtown crisis and its aftermath with children. Much of that guidance is relevant to teachers and other school officials, too, Dr. Schonfeld explained, depending on the context, such as whether the adult is speaking one-on-one to a child or to groups of students.

That advice includes limiting children’s exposure to new media reports on events in the media, and, if children do watch, screening what they see carefully. Adults can share their feelings about the shootings, but if they feel overwhelmed by their emotions, they should look for support from other adults before bringing discussions to children, the center recommends. School officials and others may feel obligated to provide an explanation for why the crime occurred, but there’s nothing wrong with adults admitting to children they don’t know, according to the guidance.

Called to Respond

In Stockton, Mr. Brock was about 30 years old, and had been working as a school psychologist for five years when he was asked to respond to the crisis at Cleveland Elementary after a gunman named Patrick Purdy walked on to school grounds and began shooting while several hundred children were at recess, before taking his own life.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Brock had helped students and school officials cope with numerous crises ranging from an accidental shooting to traffic fatalities. But entering the 6th grade classroom brought unfamiliar challenges, which he and his colleagues tried to address methodically.

One of their first tasks was to present the students with as many facts as possible—and to defeat false rumors, one of which was that there had been a second shooter who might still be at large.

“Reality was more reassuring than the reality [circulating] in the schoolyard,” Mr. Brock said.

The psychologists tried to make it clear the danger had ended. They carefully monitored students’ responses to all of the information provided to them. They followed up with individual students who needed it. They also tried to cultivate students’ ability to engage in “symptom-solving,” which Mr. Brock described as “helping them self-identify the things they can do to help themselves and help each other.”

“It’s a classroom,” Mr. Brock said. “It’s a lesson—only it’s a very difficult lesson.”

Mr. Brock, who is now 54 and trains aspiring school psychologists, said he and his colleagues helping at Cleveland Elementary School also tried to avoid making judgments about how students were responding to the aftermath of the crisis by what they said or did in school. Some students had public expressions of grief at school. Others were stoic, he recalled, but suffered upon returning home at night.

“One size does not fit all,” he said. “What stood out were the range of reactions that I would see.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week

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