School Climate & Safety

‘We Really Didn’t Know What to Do': How a District Regrouped After a Mass Shooting

By Caitlynn Peetz — October 30, 2023 9 min read
People linger after a vigil for the victims of Wednesday's mass shootings, on Oct. 29, 2023, outside the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine.
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On July 4, 2022, a gunman killed seven people and wounded 48 others at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Ill.

The mass violence—less than two months after 19 elementary students and two teachers were killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas—didn’t occur at a school. But schools were not spared from the fallout.

“It was a community tragedy—it didn’t happen in our schools—but the impact on our schools is immeasurable,” said Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of the elementary school district that includes Highland Park.

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Jess Paquette expresses her support for her city in the wake of Wednesday's mass shootings at a restaurant and bowling alley, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine. Police continue their manhunt for the suspect. Authorities urged residents to lock themselves in their homes and schools announced closures on Thursday. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Jess Paquette expresses her support for her city in the wake of Wednesday's mass shootings at a restaurant and bowling alley, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine. Police continue their manhunt for the suspect. Authorities urged residents to lock themselves in their homes and schools announced closures.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Although it was summer vacation, Lubelfeld and his leadership team sprang into action. They kept the school community updated frequently. They tried to assess the impact on students, staff, and their family members. The local high school opened up as a counseling center.

District leaders continued efforts that were already underway to ensure the 3,800-student district’s campuses were as secure as possible in a community whose sense of security had been shattered.

And they lined up a deliberate approach to supporting students and staff in time for the return to school. The district hired additional social workers and counselors, launched mental health screenings, and conducted regular student check-ins to keep tabs on kids’ well-being.

“We launched into probably six months of trauma-informed practices,” Lubelfeld said. “I don’t think we took a breath until Christmas vacation, to tell you the truth.”

Now, a similar task falls to school leaders in Lewiston, Maine, after a gunman on Oct. 25, shot and killed 18 people and injured more than a dozen others at a bowling alley and bar.

Police did not find the body of the alleged gunman for 48 hours. In the meantime, many schools in Maine closed and residents of several communities were asked to shelter in place. The suspect died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to authorities.

Following the deadliest mass shooting since Uvalde, the tight-knit Lewiston community of about 37,000 people is tasked with finding a path forward.

Lewiston Public Schools staff returned to work Monday, according to a message posted on the school district website, and students were expected to return Tuesday on a modified schedule focused more on mental health support and “just gathering,” the message said.

For two weeks, the district intends to focus largely on supporting students’ and staff members’ well-being, while slowly reestablishing routines and academic engagement, the message said.

That challenge is all too familiar for Lubelfeld.

Highland Park is also a small community with about 30,000 people, and “not a single person was unaffected” by the 2022 shooting, Lubelfeld said in an interview with Education Week.

Lubelfeld spoke about the shooting’s impact on his school community, how his district responded, and what helped the school system most in the weeks following the shooting. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you find out about the shooting, and what was going through your head?

Michael Lubelfeld

It feels like a lifetime ago now, but I was home with my wife and children. We live in the town adjacent to Highland Park, in Deerfield. My wife and kids were getting pings on social media saying that something was going on in Highland Park. So, I went to find my phone and saw I was getting pings, as well.

Pretty quickly the story came together that people were shot at the parade and it was bad.

Like any other town in America, the parade is a huge event that draws probably thousands of spectators, all of whom have some kind of connection to the school district. I knew we had hundreds of staff members or community members who attend the parade. Our parent-teacher organization from some of the schools took people there. I knew I would have students there.

It was a community tragedy—it didn’t happen in our schools—but the impact on our schools is immeasurable.

What were your first steps once you knew what had happened?

I was just in a state of shock. All of a sudden, my heart sank thinking, “Oh my gosh, I probably know all of the victims or at least some of the victims.”

That was just a split second and then I thought I needed to get my bearings straight and take a school district-centered focus.

My first instinct was to reach out to our leadership team and administrators. I wanted everyone to literally check in with me with their voice to make sure they were safe and we could account for every leader in the district. Then I did the same for our school board and union leadership shortly thereafter.

I wanted to know: Do I have every leader and know that I can count on my team to figure out whatever the heck it is that we’re going to do, even though I didn’t know what we were going to do?

So, operating just on instinct, I was getting my computer set up, getting my phone set up, calling up the neighboring superintendent. Within probably 30 to 60 minutes, we sent our initial communication to the entire staff and community, saying we were aware of an incident in the community and would be following up as soon as possible.

It was a community tragedy—it didn’t happen in our schools—but the impact on our schools is immeasurable.

What were the next few days like, as you and other community leaders navigated the fallout from the shooting?

The next several days were really a blur and a flurry of meetings and trying to consistently communicate with our people. It was a tragedy with traumatic impacts on everybody—myself, the other school leaders, and every person in our community. We really didn’t know what to do.

The high school superintendent and I decided the next day to open up the high school as a drop-in counseling center. We had people leaders, social workers, counselors, therapists congregating there to meet with people. Shortly after, the FBI and city took it over as a resource center, which I learned is typical protocol for these events.

The bottom line is we immediately reacted, and the only way we knew how to do something was helping, so we had to help. We were simply operating in a heightened sense of crisis, what we later found out to be trauma.

We launched into probably six months of trauma-informed practices. I don’t think we took a breath until Christmas vacation, to tell you the truth.

Eventually, you guys had to go back to school. Did you notice any changes in students or staff at the start of the school year?

Definitely. Everybody was affected. It came up a lot.

And then we’d have these horribly tragic anecdotes. One of the parents is a superintendent in another school district, and she was shot, along with her twin boys, one of whom was paralyzed. These are all our people.

Everyone’s reactions were really situational, depending on what level of trauma they were experiencing.

We had spent the time between the weeks following the shooting and before the first day of school doing overly intensive outreach with our staff—offering counseling and helping them find whatever support they needed—because we knew it was so important to get our staff in the best headspace possible to come back to work and take care of our kids.

A cafe shows its support for the community on Oct. 28, 2023 in Lewiston, Maine.

What kind of mental health supports were in place to help everyone reintegrate back into their school routines?

Immediately, in the 22-23 school year, we launched a required, weekly mental health check-in for each child in grades pre-K through eight.

We also immediately launched two universal mental health screeners that acted as risk assessments to help us assess how the students were doing. Those results would help us triage services and personalize our response to how they were feeling.

We also hired additional social workers and counselors. We have 1,300 kids on campuses, and we have more than 30 social workers and psychologists.

We also held trauma-informed mental health workshops for parents and teachers for several months to teach them about what to watch for and how to help the children and themselves.

Did the shooting at all ignite concerns about the safety of your school buildings?

Yes, the overarching worries and fears and concerns of the parents when we came back to school were the safety of the schools.

The mass shooting shattered the feeling of safety and sanctity and security in the community, which redoubled our efforts on making sure that we were able to convince members of our community that, even though they had just suffered the unthinkable with a mass shooting, that we were able to keep our schools safe, emotionally and physically.

Before the shooting, we had this whole orientation toward safety, and we’ve invested nearly $6 million in fortifications in the last year.

Tammy Asselin, who was at the Just-in-Time Recreation bowling alley with her daughter, Toni, during the mass shooting, embrace during an interview in Lewiston, Maine, on Oct. 27, 2023.

After the Uvalde shooting, which was two months before the Highland Park shooting, I was able to hire a security consulting group prior to the July 4 shooting to check the safety and security of our schools.

Sadly, there are so many school shootings that there’s a lot of experts out there around the nation to whom we reached out. One of the groups was the Illinois Terrorism Task Force. After the Parkland shooting in Florida, they convened a broad statewide group that addressed ways to keep schools safe, and they focused on behavioral threat assessment, the fortification of the schools, and on reporting and communication. I was able to get that report, and the recommendations informed our improvements prior to the shooting and some of the work since.

Are there any resources you didn’t have that you wish you did?

No, but that was only because we were already oriented toward safety and security in our buildings after the Uvalde shooting in May. I had already recently connected with the resources at the state level, so I knew who to call. I don’t think anything could have prepared me to handle that event. I just knew enough to know that professional networks and resources were critical, so I knew to call many people for help.

The city, the FBI, the Red Cross, the local emergency management agency, the state of Illinois were all incredible resources. We were at meetings with, like, 15 government partners every week, so we were part of a much larger ecosystem with respect to community-based trauma. But in our little world of this elementary school district, we were very scrappy in terms of how we make sure we keep the lights on and trains rolling, and make sure we provide safe and productive spaces for our kiddos and for our staff.

Everybody and their mother was offering to help us, and we took whatever help we could get because we were sort of numb. We needed help.

Would you have any advice for other district leaders who, unfortunately, will experience a similar situation in their community?

My heart and prayers and thoughts and condolences first and foremost go out to each and every victim and every person affected by this tragedy in Maine, No. 1.

No. 2, call for help. Call your city people. Call your neighboring superintendent. Call your professional association. You don’t want to try to take this burden on alone. It’s too much.

People sign "I love you" while gathered at a vigil for the victims of Wednesday's mass shootings, on Oct. 29, 2023, outside the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, Maine.


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