Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

How Schools Heal after a Tragedy

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

How Schools Heal after a Tragedy

Article excerpt

Every tragedy is different but preparation, strong school/community ties, and disciplined followup can help every situation.

A tornado rips through a community, destroying one school and severely damaging another.

Three students are killed in an automobile accident on the way home from prom.

A gunman terrorizes a school, killing and wounding many students and staff.

A teacher dies of an unexpected heart attack in front of her students.

A student commits suicide in a high school parking lot.

Long-term recovery from crisis is not a single event but rather a journey that requires intentionality and, in many cases, more time than we might think. The more people affected, the more complex the process. Although schools generally operate with defined beginnings and endings --school years, budget cycles, grade levels, grading periods, class schedules, and the like--crisis recovery does not work that way.

As school psychologists with extensive school crisis experience, we have helped guide schools on how to respond to and recover from a myriad of traumatic events. As such, we are all too familiar with the devastating effects crises can have on schools, yet we have also seen schools help their communities cope and in doing so help students learn how to adaptively deal with tragic events.

At school, the ultimate goal of long-term recovery is to return to learning and instruction. However, doing that can take time, and the return to "normal" must be balanced with adequate time and support for healing. Our experience as practitioners has been reinforced through our work at the national level as volunteer leaders with the National Association of School Psychologists where we have consulted with school districts across the country in the aftermath of crises and developed best practices and training for school crisis prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

We have a learned a number of important lessons about what recovery means for schools, and illustrate these lessons with two specific examples.

A school shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., in 1998 was a life-changing event for the community, staff, and students. A freshman entered the school with a semiautomatic rifle and two handguns. He passed the perimeter fencing, surveillance cameras, and campus monitors, and sprayed 50 rounds of ammunition throughout the cafeteria. This single act of violence left two students dead and 25 other students seriously wounded. Cathy Kennedy-Paine was one of the first responders to the high school, and, as a school psychologist, helped lead planning and implementing the district's response.

Our second example involves the suicide of a high school student in the Central High School parking lot. (Central High is a pseudonym used here to protect the identity of the student.) Sixteen classrooms of students and staff looked out their classroom windows to see a student on fire. Horrified and confused, office staff went running out of the building, and a teacher jumped out a window to run toward the student to help extinguish the fire. The student survived the initial incident though tragically died a few days later of his injuries. Many assumed it was an accident until a suicide note was found. School psychologist Melissa Reeves had just trained this district's administrators, mental health workers, and crisis teams and was called to provide consultation.

From these experiences, we derive five lessons for long-term recovery after crises:

Lesson #1: Be prepared before a crisis happens.

Many crisis events can overwhelm the coping capacities of students and adults. The effectiveness of recovery depends on the quality of prior planning and preparation as well as the character and connectedness of the school climate. Certainly the nature of the event itself is relevant to the scope and scale of people's needs. …

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