School & District Management

Principals Who Led Schools After Shootings Say Helping Peers Is Part of Their Own Recovery

By Evie Blad — August 22, 2022 3 min read
A photo of former Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis, a man with a dark beard and brown eyes. He is seated in a dark brown jacket, resting his fingers on his temple while having a conversation.
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Recovery from a school shooting is a lifelong process that involves educators, families, community members—and even the children of survivors who may see the downstream effects of that trauma.

That was the message from a network of principals who’ve led schools following shootings, who gathered in Littleton, Colo., Monday to release a guide for peers who may one day face a similar crisis.

“I have a new view of ‘long,’” said George Roberts, who was the principal at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, Md., in August 2012 when a student shot and injured another in the cafeteria.

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“Long is forever,” he said. “If you are in a building where this occurred, a community where this occurred, recovery is forever.”

Roberts was joined at the event by fellow principals from schools that made headlines when they became sites of unthinkable gun violence, like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Members of the network also include leaders of schools whose attacks drew less national attention but still caused years of pain for survivors. Together, they collaborated on the new guide for school leaders.

The process of meeting to talk through their experiences and write recommendations they wish they’d had was part of their own recovery, the school leaders said. Group members frequently text each other after new tragedies, and they rush to contact affected principals who may need to lean on someone who’s been there.

“The news media moves away from an event, and school districts, students, parents, faculty, are left to try and figure this out,” said Michael Bennett, who was a special education teacher at an East Greenbush, N.Y., high school in 2004 when a student shot him in the hallway. “This is not something that just goes away when it goes off the news.”

Bennett said he’s found “serenity” in running, and he’s seen four counselors to help him talk through various stages of his grief. His peers, including former Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis, said building a network of support for other leaders has given them purpose that helps carry them through years of aftershocks.

In guiding recovery efforts, principals listen to their communities

The new guide includes advice on topics like how to respond to offers of help, how to restart school after a tragedy, how to conduct annual remembrances, and how to let student input guide support efforts.

“It really takes a sacrificial view of leadership to let go of what you think will heal your community and let your community tell you what it will take to heal,” said Elizabeth Brown, who became principal of Forest High School in Marion County, Fla., 45 days after a former student wounded a current student in a 2018 shooting.

For Brown, that meant scrapping plans for a somber, poignant remembrance to fulfill a student group’s request for a goofy staff lip sync performance at lunch time.

While they wrote the guide in response to school shootings, the principals said their recommendations could be applicable to a wide variety of school crises, from natural disasters to student suicides. They encouraged their peers to read it now, rather than waiting for a tragic event to consider the advice.

While there are commonalities, every community is different, and the recovery process is complicated, said Michelle Kefford, who became principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the 2018 attack.

For Kefford’s students, and their community, the latest complication is a sentencing trial going on now for the gunman, a former student who killed 17 people and wounded 17 others. Family members of victims and students who were severely injured have testified in graphic detail, “reopening old wounds” for the community, she said.

For the community of Littleton, the twists and turns come as recovery reaches the next generation. Columbine High School survivors are now parents themselves, dealing with new anxieties as they send their own children to school. In 2018, one survivor told Education Week about the stress undergoing a lockdown drill in her son’s classroom when she was volunteering at his school.

“I made a comment two days after [the Columbine shooting] that I had just joined a club in which no one wants to be a member,” DeAngelis said.

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