School Climate & Safety

Principals Face Raft of Tough Decisions in Shootings’ Aftermath

By Lesli A. Maxwell & Jaclyn Zubrzycki — December 20, 2012 10 min read
A young girl waves as her school bus pulls into Hawley Elementary School on Tuesday in Newtown, Conn. Classes resumed Tuesday for Newtown K-12 public schools, except for those at Sandy Hook Elementary, the site of Friday’s shooting.
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Less than four hours after a 14-year-old boy had opened fire at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., killing three classmates 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 just the first of many weighty decisions for Bill Bond, who was Heath’s principal on Dec. 1, 1997, the day that Michael Carneal, a freshman at the high school in the western Kentucky town, 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 bury and mourn the 20 children, the principal, and five other staff members who were gunned down by an armed intruder at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week, other educators who’ve 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, they must delicately mind the trauma and emotions of their staff members, their students, parents, and themselves. Longer-term considerations about how to memorialize the victims also await.

Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, 47 School Principal

Already, leaders in Newtown have decided to reopen school for Sandy Hook on Jan. 2, after the winter holidays, though students in the district’s six other schools returned Dec. 18. Sandy Hook students and staff members will not return for now to the campus in Newtown, which remains a massive crime scene. Their classes will resume in a borrowed middle school building in Monroe, a neighboring town. Donna Page, a retired former principal of Sandy Hook, has been selected to lead the school through the transition in place of Dawn Hochsprung, the beloved and energetic leader who was killed in the Dec. 14 massacre.

Recovery’s Path

The 5,500-student Newtown district has sought support and advice from officials in Jefferson County, Colo., where two student gunmen killed 12 of their classmates and one teacher at Columbine High School in April 1999 before killing themselves, said Connecticut’s state education commissioner Stefan Pryor. Though each community must make decisions based on its own needs, “recovery from these events follows a predictable path,” and there are lessons to be learned and resources to be drawn from others who have experienced similar tragedies, said Cathy Paine, a retired school psychologist who leads an emergency assistance team for the National Association of School Psychologists.

One of the first decisions is when to return to school and where. “Timing the return to school is very important, especially with so many victims who have to be memorialized,” said Cynthia Stevenson, the superintendent in Jefferson County, Colo. “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 shooting, 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 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 for Secondary School Principals, said that decision was one of the best he made in the aftermath of the shooting tragedy. But it wouldn’t necessarily be the right choice in other school crisis scenarios, he said.

Each situation is unique, said Ms. Paine, but generally, getting students and staff members back to class and to a routine is good.

Easing Re-entry

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

In Springfield, leaders decided that students would return to Thurston High School a few days after the shooting, which was confined to the school’s cafeteria. To help ease everyone back onto campus, 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. Even so, it was difficult for many to go into the cafeteria. 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 devastating to return. After the massacre at Columbine High, administrators wrestled with this 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. “Some will say you can never go back in that building, while others will say you have to. 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 even gotten to that point,” said Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut department of education.

Supporting Communities

In Newtown, where a large team of mental health professionals has descended to provide support and services, school leaders have to steel themselves for a wide range of reactions and emotions from students, families, and staff members. They must offer ample opportunities for people to vent, grieve, and console one another while they are at school, said Mr. Bond, who emphasized that providing psychologists and social workers who are independent from the school system is also crucial.

After the shooting at Heath, 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 shooting, or 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. “That was the most powerful part—the staff’s commitment to those kids,” Mr. Bond said. “It won’t be any different at Sandy Hook.”

In other school shooting cases, the crisis was compounded by departures of teachers, school leaders, and students. A shooting at Red Lake High School on an American Indian reservation in Minnesota in March 2005 killed eight people, including the student gunman. By September, a third of the staff members had left the school, and one year after the incident, half of the staff members had gone, said Mr. Bond, who worked closely with educators in that community during its recovery.

The word "HOPE" is illuminated on the front lawn of a funeral home hosting the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung in Woodbury, Conn., on Wednesday. Hochsprung was killed when Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children, before killing himself.

“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 onto 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 Springfield, district officials sought grants to hire and keep extra psychologists on staff for several years following the shooting. Individual staff members and students, including some who were friends with the gunman, received ongoing counseling 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 this week, state troopers were posted at schools as students returned to class.

Soon after the Springfield, Ore., killings, school officials began closely evaluating security procedures and eventually redesigned many of the 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, many of these 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 shooting, “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.” Ms. Stevenson said the expertise on school safety that is available now wasn’t there 13 years ago.

Managing Kindnesses

As communities recover from tragedies, they’re often inundated with attention and offers of help from the outside. Managing the influx of support and donations that comes after an event can be overwhelming and sometimes contentious, Ms. Paine said. The Newtown community has received an outpouring of financial donations to support victims, and the school board has created a Sandy Hook support fund with the United Way. A board of community members will be selected this week to administer the fund, according to a letter from the Newtown Savings Bank. A similar fund and committee, independent of the school district, were created in Springfield.

Determining how to deal with the 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. Springfield and Jefferson County, both larger school districts, already had public relations staff. The Newtown School District did not have a dedicated spokesman, and the state department of education’s public relations officer has stepped in to take over that role.

As other districts have learned, effective communication is important in the aftermath of tragedy. Ms. Paine said that teachers and students had to be trained in how to talk to the media—and reminded that they didn’t have to. But, Mr. Bond said, the media also provided a way to communicate with parents and concerned community members.

Schools like Columbine and Sandy Hook also face a challenge in reclaiming their sense of school identity after it has been associated with violence. “I do distinctly recall the kids at Thurston saying, ‘We don’t want to be the shooting school, we just want to be the Thurston Colts,’” Ms. Paine said. Time, Ms. Paine said, was the main help.

Memorializing Tragedy

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

Spontaneous memorials spring up right away, but communities often struggle to agree on what form a permanent commemoration should take. At Columbine High School, 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 also 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 fence that had been covered with flowers and photos as a makeshift memorial in the days following the shooting.

With such decisions, location is key. Though it’s important to commemorate the event, “we don’t recommend that it be right in front of the building,” said Ms. Paine. A memorial for victims in a middle school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., was first built in front of the school, 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.

“People talk about going back to normal. What I always tell them is, you will never go back to the normal you were before. You have to find a new normal,” Ms. Paine said. “Even though this very evil thing happened, we have to move forward and find the good.”

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

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