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School & District Management

Principals and Superintendents Who’ve Been Through School Shootings Tell Congress What They Need

By Denisa R. Superville — April 17, 2018 6 min read
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More funding for mental health and behavioral training for teachers and school employees. Additional money to help districts recover in the aftermath of a school shooting.

The creation of a central entity on the state level to oversee school safety. Hearings with experts on the best ways to secure buildings so that schools are actually safe without coming to look and feel like prisons. And efforts to allow schools and law enforcement to work together on planning for school shootings and share information on potential threats.

Those were some of the suggestions school and district leaders who’ve experienced the trauma and devastation of school shootings had for Congress and other elected officials during a panel Tuesday on school safety hosted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The principals and superintendents shared their experiences leading schools after shootings, what worked in their communities and the needs that still linger.

Dale Marsden is the superintendent of the school district in San Bernardino, Calif., where two terrorists killed 14 people about two miles from a district elementary school in 2015, and where, in 2017, the estranged husband of a special education teacher shot and killed his wife along with an 8-year-old boy at North Park Elementary School.

The district received $69,000 from Project SERV, a federal grant to help districts and schools recover from traumatic events, after the North Park shooting, but so far, the district has spent more than $5 million on school safety, training, mental health support, and on facilities, Marsden said.

Safety is large ‘unfunded obligation’ for districts

“School safety has now become our district’s largest unfunded obligation,” Marsden said.

The call for increasing the Project SERV grant was repeated by George Roberts, who was principal of Perry Hall High School in Maryland’s Baltimore County where one student shot another student in the cafeteria during the first day of school in 2012. Nearly six years later, teachers still call him whenever there is another school shooting in the U.S., Roberts said.

Roberts said there needs to be more programs to support educators in the aftermath of a shooting. One such program could fund a kind of “quick response” team that would reach out to principals and district leaders to provide guidance on what to expect and how to rebuild a positive climate and supportive school culture after a shooting.

Principals and superintendents who’ve experienced school shootings already do this informally.

“We are not trained as first responders, we are trained as educators,” he said.

Marsden also floated the need for a central state agency in charge of school safety.

A large district with about 50,000 students, San Bernardino had many of the resources in place that it needed to help recover, he said. But he imagines that it would be much more difficult for a small district to navigate a shooting and the aftermath without any services from state agencies.

Marsden said there is a role for the federal government to play in ensuring that there is an agency at the state level that would provide help to districts after a school shooting, similar to the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency springs into action after a disaster.

“When you have an incident at a school site, there needs to be a mechanism that deploys resources,” he said.

He cited Maryland’s Center for School Safety, which was established in 2013, as an example. According to the center’s website, the center shares best practices, provides technical assistance and training, and collaborates with local systems and law enforcement on issues related to school safety.

A U.S. Air Force veteran, Marsden is opposed to arming teachers and supports instead more training on positive behavior intervention and support to help students who may be in crisis.

“We simply must know how to be responsive to the needs of our community and our children,” Marsden said. “We are not wired to do this naturally. It’s not something we signed up for in public education. We need to have tools and mechanisms to better prepare us for this work.”

Schools and law enforcement need to train together

Warman Hall, the principal of Aztec High School in New Mexico, where two students were killed when a former student entered the school last December and started shooting, called for more money through Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act to help districts with school safety and mental health training. In the months since the shooting, there have been multiple offers in the community to help with counseling, but he said there is a dearth of mental health providers in the community, he said.

He’s a big proponent of making it easier for law enforcement officers and schools to collaborate—on training for school shooting exercises and for law enforcement to be able to use the schools for such training. And he thinks that collaboration between schools and local emergency management should be a factor in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Hall also thinks that armed officers in schools should not simply be another armed presence but should be there to build relationships with students and be part of their lives.

Hall also said that law enforcement officials—from the Federal Bureau of Information to local law enforcement—should be able to sit down with school officials to talk about potential threats in the community and that school officials should be able to go to law enforcement about concerns that may require a police response.

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat whose district includes Parkland, Fla., where a former student killed 17 people in a high school massacre on Feb. 14, gave credit to the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the movement they ignited after their school shooting. He ticked off the list of legislative changes related to guns and school safety that have been made both in Florida and in Washington since the students started their advocacy.

While adding that those measures were not enough, Deutch said that he was hopeful that the students will be victorious in changing gun laws.

“They are going to change the gun laws,” he said. “They are going to continue the conversation. We are going to have universal background checks. It may or may not happen before the end of this Congress, but we are going to have universal background checks, something that 90-plus percent of the people in the country support.”

And Billy Wermuth, a student at North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pa., who serves on the NASSP’s Student Leadership Advisory Committee, echoed the sentiment.

“We are not waiting our turn, we are here to take our turn,” he said. “My generation is raising its voice now because we will be part of the solution. We know that if we don’t solve manageable problems today we’re doomed to face massive problems tomorrow. We hope policy makers will be open to hearing us if not because of our ideas, but because four million of my peers will turn 18 before the November elections.”

The panel discussion was aimed at providing real world context for policy discussions on school safety on the hill and in state legislatures, said JoAnn Bartoletti, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

When the cameras are gone and the well-wishers leave, principals are the ones who are left behind to rebuild their schools and communities, she said.

Photo caption: (From left to right) Dale Marsden, the superintendent of the San Bernardino school district; George Roberts, a community superintendent and former principal of Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, Md.; and Warman Hall, the principal of Aztec High School in New Mexico. The educators attended a panel discussion on April 17, 2018, to share their experiences leading after a school shooting and to discuss steps that elected officials can take to improve school safety. Photo courtesy the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.