Once again, we see yellow police tape surrounding a school. We see sobbing parents clutching their children in relief, and imagine the others closeted with grief counselors telling them that their children won’t be coming home.
Tears on every face. And, over and over, the same questions are asked: How could this happen, and why?
To watch such a scene on television is heartbreaking. To experience it firsthand ... spirit-shattering.
Almost 14 years ago, my husband and I were among just such a crowd of parents, searching desperately for our child’s name among the lists of survivors of the Columbine High School killings. Three hours after the ordeal began, I glanced toward the entrance of the school where hundreds of parents awaited news of their children, and in the distance I saw a familiar Green Bay Packers hat slowly moving through the crowd. My son was alive. Stunned, but physically uninjured.
Today, “Columbine” is often equated with the day so many lives were lost, April 20. It’s a shorthand way of encapsulating all the pain into a simple phrase. But I want people to know that the tragedy didn’t just happen on that day in 1999. It merely began that day. As those in Newtown, Conn., will learn, the repercussions of any school shooting, terrorist attack, or natural disaster do not begin and end on a single day.
Still, even as the tragedy in Connecticut continues to unfold, there is a need to look forward. What I’d like to share with you is advice from those who have been in similar tragedies on how to put life, and learning, back together, as well as thoughts on how schools can prepare for events they hope they never actually encounter.
As I experienced the sorrow and disruption in my community after the Columbine shootings, I saw people struggle to put their lives back in order. Educators—those amazing teachers, administrators, and other staff members at the high school—went back to work, fighting their own despair, while being there for the kids.
I saw many benevolent efforts by service groups and individuals, reaching out to help soothe the pain and offer their support. I also saw some ill-advised and hurtful interventions, offers of help that either came with strings attached or were based on hidden agendas to connect with the school in mourning.
"Before a crisis hits, teachers can benefit from professional development on how to accommodate and adjust to the special learning needs brought on by trauma.”
As a result, I decided to study the problem, trying to find advice that others might take to heart should disaster strike their community. I entered the University of Denver’s doctoral program in educational leadership and policy studies in 2001, writing a dissertation, “Experiences of Columbine Parents: Finding a Way to Tomorrow,” that focused on actual experiences and advice from a community where a school has undergone a rampage shooting.
In the years since, I have continued to study what helped organizations and individuals after a traumatic event and worked with survivors of other devastating violence, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the shootings at Virginia Tech. I ended up writing a book, Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma: Advice Based on Experience.
After a tragedy, everything is in turmoil; it is certainly not the easiest time to make difficult decisions about moving forward. That’s why some decisions should be thought out in advance.
Consider this: School districts are required to have detailed plans for crisis prevention and response, but an often-overlooked element in this planning is addressing what to do in the long-term aftermath of tragedy. This means planning not just how we protect kids, or evacuate them, but how to help them recover from a traumatic experience. The educational landscape will change in a school struck by a shooting or natural disaster.
Schools are places of teaching and learning, and they can also be places of healing and support. Students spend the largest part of their day in school, so educators will naturally be an important factor in their recovery. Students at devastated schools told me that the thing that helped most was to be able to talk to a teacher, one who would just listen. This is a lot to ask of a teacher, yet a trauma will place them in the middle of the healing process.
Academically, other aspects of recovery come into consideration. Teachers routinely differentiate for special learning needs and disabilities, modifying curriculum and adjusting lessons. Before a crisis hits, teachers can benefit from professional development on how to accommodate and adjust to the special learning needs brought on by trauma, which affects cognitive processing, memory, attention span, problem-solving, verbal ability, and a host of other factors that can influence school performance (e.g., anxiety, hypervigilence, defensiveness, anger, difficulty sleeping, regression to earlier behaviors).
School schedules may need to be adjusted, and at the classroom level, alternative instructional plans and assessment measures may be necessary. For example, teachers may have to shift to more small-group instruction, less rote-memory work, and smaller learning units in the early days. Reading lists at Columbine were reviewed to remove literature with disturbing concepts. One teacher assigned a Shakespeare comedy in place of Hamlet, with its themes of depression and suicide. Other teachers added works that gave students a chance to discuss their fears. Service projects were planned—by the students themselves, with faculty support—as a way to reclaim a sense of empowerment and to provide the comfort from feeling they could help others.
For assessments, teachers assigned students to create physical models or graphic designs to demonstrate that they understood relationships between concepts. Some teachers planned open-book tests or allowed the use of “cheat sheets” with chemical formulas or math equations for tests, since they wanted to know if their students could use the equations, not if they could remember them.
The difficult truth is that after a tragedy, some students will not be able to return to their classrooms and will need, instead, alternative locations for their educations. Districts have had to recruit retired teachers and substitutes for educators needing to take time for their own recovery. Districts have also had to hire teachers to instruct kids who couldn’t return to the classroom—holding classes in students’ homes or elsewhere in the community. Knowing in advance who could step in and what other locations could be used for instruction is part of the support network that may be planned in advance.
Educators I interviewed also advised building strong working relationships with those who would be involved in helping to reclaim school in the aftermath: community groups, emergency responders, mental-health providers, and others. It helps to know in advance sources for essential services and even financial support.
The list of possible suggestions is long. Every situation is different, every community will have its own needs, and every individual will have a unique set of responses and reactions to what he or she experienced. The more we can do in advance to accept the possibility that the unthinkable could happen, no matter how much we try to prevent it, the clearer we can be in planning for a response that will help reclaim lives and allow a school to return to the business of teaching and learning. That is what motivated my research, and that was most definitely what prompted the contributors to Reclaiming School in the Aftermath to publicly share what they had experienced and what helped them recover.
I hope you never need any of this information. But if tragedy hits where you live, please know that you face a long journey—a marathon, not a sprint, as Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis often says. And please be assured that there are others who have walked this road before you and stand ready to help.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as After the Tragedy, What Next?