School Climate & Safety

Post-Tragedy, Difficult Choices Loom

By Lesli A. Maxwell & Jaclyn Zubrzycki — January 08, 2013 8 min read
A bus traveling from Newtown, Conn., stops in front of 26 angels set up along the roadside on the first day back to school for students from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Experts say spontaneous memorials often appear after a tragedy, but communities may disagree on a more permanent memorial.
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Less than four hours after a 14-year-old boy opened fire at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., killing three students and wounding five others, the principal had to begin making difficult choices.

Should school resume the next day? And, if so, should students and staff members return so soon to the place where an unimaginable scene of horror had unfolded?

Those were the first of many weighty decisions for Bill Bond, who was Heath High’s principal on the December day in 1997 when a freshman showed up on campus heavily armed and began shooting at students who had gathered for a morning prayer group.

As the community of Newtown, Conn., continues to mourn the 20 children, the principal, and five other staff members who were gunned down last month by an armed intruder at Sandy Hook Elementary School, other educators who have been through similarly horrific events said school leaders there face a series of wrenching decisions about how to pick up the pieces and move forward amid immeasurable loss and grief.

As they make logistical decisions, officials must be mindful of the emotions of staff members, students, parents, and themselves. Longer-term considerations about how to commemorate the victims also await.

Last week, Sandy Hook Elementary students and staff members returned to school for the first time since the Dec. 14 shootings. Classes resumed in a borrowed middle school building in Monroe, Conn., a neighboring town.

Newtown leaders had made that decision within a few days of the shootings, while also choosing to return to a normal schedule for the district’s six other schools four days after the gunman’s attack.

Donna Pagé, a retired former principal of Sandy Hook, was selected to lead the school through the transition. Dawn L. Hochsprung, the beloved and energetic leader who was killed, had been principal since 2010.

There are lessons and resources to draw from other communities that have experiences similar tragedies.

Connecticut’s state education commissioner, Stefan Pryor, said leaders in the 5,500-student Newtown district have sought advice from officials in Jefferson County, Colo., where two student gunmen killed 12 other students and one teacher at Columbine High School in April 1999 before killing themselves. One of the first decisions is when to return to school and where.

“Timing the return to school is very important,” said Cynthia Stevenson, the superintendent of the 84,000-student Jefferson County district. “You have to allow for the time for families to go to these memorials.”

Students at Columbine did not return to school for two weeks following the shootings, and when they did, they attended classes at another high school in the district, said Ms. Stevenson, who was the deputy superintendent at the time.

In West Paducah, “for us, the answer was yes, we had to come back the next day,” said Mr. Bond, who retired from the school in 2000 after the last of the students wounded in the shootings graduated. “When I asked the shooter, ‘Why did you do this?’ he said to me, ‘I want to be in control.’ If we had shut down school the next day, he would have been.”

Mr. Bond, who now advises districts and schools on safety issues as a specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that decision was one of the best he made following the violence at his school. But it wouldn’t necessarily be the right choice in other school crisis scenarios, he said.

Easing a Return

Each situation is unique, but generally, getting students and staff members back to class and to a routine is good, said Cathy Paine, a retired school psychologist who leads an emergency-assistance team for the National Association of School Psychologists.

Ms. Paine was working in the Springfield, Ore., school district when a freshman at Thurston High School opened fire in the school’s cafeteria in 1998, killing two students and wounding 25 others.

Leaders there decided that students would return to Thurston High a few days after the shooting, which was confined to the school’s cafeteria.

On the day of the shootings, police lead a line of Sandy Hook students to safety.

To smooth the return, school leaders opened the building and brought in a massage therapist, food, and a therapy dog a few days before classes resumed so people could get comfortable in the space, Ms. Paine said.

Still, it was difficult for many to go into the cafeteria, and school leaders offered students and staff an alternative place on campus to eat lunch.

In some cases, and potentially at Sandy Hook, the trauma may be too great to return to the same campus. After the massacre at Columbine High, administrators wrestled with that issue for weeks, in close consultation with victims’ families and the broader school community, before deciding to return to the building at the beginning of the next school year, after major renovations, said Ms. Stevenson.

“Be prepared for strong emotions on both sides,” she said. “We ultimately decided that evil was not going to win, and we would go back.”

So soon after the Newtown attack, discussions about the ultimate fate of the Sandy Hook campus have not started, said Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut education department.

Supporting Communities

Following such wrenching events, school leaders have to provide a steady supply of mental-health professionals for support, as well as ample opportunities for people to vent, grieve, and console one another while they are at school, said Mr. Bond.

He emphasized that providing psychologists and social workers who are independent of the school system is also crucial.

After the shootings at Heath High, Mr. Bond said, his biggest mistake was not providing enough time to his teachers in the early weeks after the incident to grieve together and air their emotions.

When none of the school’s staff retired, transferred, or otherwise left Heath after the shootings, even at the end of the school year, Mr. Bond said he was amazed. The tragedy even seemed to deepen the staff’s commitment to the school, and especially to affected students.

In other school shooting cases, the crisis was compounded by departures of school leaders, teachers, and students.

The 2005 shootings at Red Lake High School on an American Indian reservation in Minnesota killed eight people, including the student gunman. By September, a third of the staff members had left, and one year after the incident, half the staff had gone, said Mr. Bond, who worked with educators in that community during its recovery.

“It was a huge loss to students, on top of what they had already lost,” he said. “Administrators need to do whatever it takes to hold on to those faculty and keep that community together to heal.”

Mental-health needs after such trauma tend to ripple into the months and years following the event, creating long-term challenges for administrators as well.

In Oregon’s Springfield district, officials sought grants to hire and keep extra psychologists on staff for several years following the shootings there. Individual staff members and students, including some who were friends with the gunman, received ongoing assistance at the school.

Focus on Security

Violent school events almost always prompt demands for beefed-up security measures, such as the installation of metal detectors or, in more extreme cases, arming school staff members. In Newtown, state troopers were posted at schools as students returned to class.

See Also

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

Soon after the Springfield killings, school officials began closely evaluating security procedures and eventually redesigned many of the Oregon district’s buildings using design elements that are meant to reduce crime, such as a single point of entry into a building and other features.

At Sandy Hook Elementary School, many of those elements were already in place, complicating questions about what additional measures should be taken.

But moving too quickly on security decisions is a mistake, Ms. Stevenson said. After the Columbine shootings, “we formed a school safety task force way too fast,” she said. “Concept-wise, it was a good idea, but timing-wise, it was awful. The emotions were too raw.”

Managing Kindnesses

As communities recover from such tragic events, they’re often inundated with attention and offers of outside help. Managing the influx of donations and other support can be overwhelming and sometimes contentious, said Ms. Paine, the retired Oregon school psychologist. The Newtown community has received an outpouring of financial donations, and the local school board has created a Sandy Hook support fund with the United Way.

Determining how to deal with the news media is its own struggle. In Springfield, “we were the fifth school shooting that year, and there was media attention from all over the world,” Ms. Paine said. The Springfield schools and Colorado’s Jefferson County system, both larger districts, already had public relations staffs.

The Newtown district did not have a spokesperson, so the Connecticut education department’s public relations officer stepped in to fill that role.

Memorializing Tragedy

One of the most fraught issues for schools and communities recovering from traumatic events is how to honor the victims.

Spontaneous memorials spring up right away, but communities often struggle to agree on a permanent commemoration. At Columbine, it took almost 10 years to come up with an appropriate memorial that was eventually built on property adjacent to the campus. The victims’ names are listed on a wall in the school’s library.

The Jefferson County district was also sued by the parents of two victims, who said their First Amendment rights were violated when school officials removed commemorative art tiles that featured religious images, Ms. Stevenson said.

In Springfield, it took almost five years before a committee of students, school officials, and other community members could agree on a design. The committee eventually decided to create a park with a replica of a chain-link fence that had been covered with flowers and photos as a makeshift memorial in the days following the shootings.

Putting a memorial in front of the school building is not advisable, said Ms. Paine. A memorial for victims of the 1998 middle school shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., was first built in front of the school, she said, but was moved within a few years.

“You have to think about the school in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Post-Tragedy, Difficult Choices Loom

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