Guest post by George Roberts
August 27, 2012. The first day of school for the 2012–13 school year. The sun was shining; the sky was a brilliant blue; the air was thick with the smell of freshly cut grass; the students were wearing their best back-to-school clothes; and the schoolhouse was filled with a palpable sense of excitement that only the first day of school can bring. Little did I know that three hours later the smell of gunpowder would fill the cafeteria, the smiles would turn to tears, and the excitement flipped to fear.
Any principal, teacher, or student who has faced the trauma of a school shooting event will understand these descriptions and rapid change of emotions. For me, it was all of these things and so much more as principal of the largest high school in my district and the one responsible for the well-being and safety of more than 2,000 students and 200 staff.
Since that tragic day and through the aftermath , I have shared my story with a wide range of school-related staff, including teachers, principals, superintendents, school resource officers, and first responders. In addition, I have co-presented with powerful speakers such as Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School; Bill Bond, principal of Heath High School; and other leaders and victims of school shootings from Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech. A large part of my message focuses on recovery and how my school and greater community handled the aftermath of our school shooting event.
First, we were fortunate to not have any fatalities in my school as a result of the school shooting event. However, one student was shot at point-blank range in the back, with a shotgun, while a second shot missed a staff member’s head by mere inches before the shooter was subdued by heroic staff who were on duty in the cafeteria.
District leadership decided that our school would re-open the following day in order to return our students to a sense of normalcy and routine as quickly as possible. This is where our recovery began and ultimately begins for all schools that suffer a school shooting event. When students ultimately return to school, whether it be the next day or next week, district and school leaders must be ready to support them. Below is some general advice for district and school leaders in dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting event.
There Is No Manual
There are no absolutes for a school community recovering from such a tragedy. The first recognition is that a new normal will need to be established within the school community. How each school community responds to these tragedies is based largely on their established climate and culture and how quickly the members of the school community can bond, grieve, and begin the healing process. For some it may only take months, for some years, but for all there will always be lingering echoes and reminders.
Strong Support Plan
Think marathon, not sprint, when it comes to developing, implementing, and sustaining a support plan for the school community. The event will require an immediate plan for re-entry, counseling, and support for students, staff, and parents. However, a strong support plan will consider medium- and long-range options for continual support of all stakeholders.
For example, it is an unfortunate inevitability that another school shooting will occur in our country. What plans are in place in your school with the school-based and central office support teams to offer services for school members who relive the trauma of their own event? How will that support be structured and placed throughout the school day to provide privacy, yet availability to anyone who needs support? Another consideration is the anniversary of your event every year. Invariably, members within your school community will remember your event on the anniversaries, related funerals or services, or even the trial of the perpetrator, if applicable.
Don’t Neglect Yourself
Lastly, do not forget to take care of yourself throughout the entire process. As principals, we are trained to be strong, stoic leaders within our schools; but never forget that you are a person with emotions like all those for whom you are responsible every day. I remember the calls and texts of personal support and love I received throughout the day of my event, but never really had the time to read or respond to on that day.
However, when I got home that evening I took the time to read them, respond, decompress, cry, and share the events of the day from my perspective with my wife. If, as the principal, you are not in touch with your feelings about the event and open to feeling the pain and anguish your community feels, you will not be able to effectively lead them to where they need to be to move forward. Therefore, take advantage of offers of support that will not only help you as the leader, but also help your students, staff, parents, and community heal personally and collectively.
Again, there is no manual for how to recover from a school shooting event. As principals, your training will almost certainly facilitate your management of the event to ensure the safety and security of your students; however, your personal mettle, passion for students, commitment to your school, and love of your profession will always steer you in the right direction—trust in that.
George Roberts currently serves as a community superintendent for Baltimore County Public Schools. Prior to serving as community superintendent, Mr. Roberts was the senior executive director of curriculum operations in the division of curriculum and instruction for Baltimore County Public Schools. Before that, he was the principal of Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County.
On August 22, 2012, Perry Hall High School experienced a day filled with horror, anxiety, and tears. At 10:43 a.m., as more than 500 students settled into the first lunch shift of the day, two shotgun blasts echoed in the cafeteria and shattered the innocence of an entire school community. This brief act of violence forever changed the Perry Hall High School community and required the defining of a new normal for everyone involved. As the principal, Mr. Roberts not only had to respond to this school shooting emergency as it unfolded, but he also had to lead a school community through recovery efforts. Mr. Roberts has willingly shared his story for the past six years in the hope of helping others become acutely aware of the impact of school shootings and providing them with the tools necessary to handle and cope with the effects of such a tragic event.