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What happens after a traumatic event at school?
A law school near Ground Zero in New York City discovered it no longer had a record of students, after its computer system was destroyed on 9/11.
Schools in New Orleans post-Katrina watched as high schoolers started sucking their thumbs.
Columbine High School became balloon-free for years after the mass shooting there because the explosive sound of balloons popping would send kids diving under the desks. Violent novels were dropped from the curriculum.
How do you reclaim a school after a traumatic event?
A new book seeks to answer that question, and to demystify the trauma. Carolyn Lunsford Mears is author of “Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma: Advice Based on Experience,” a collection of essays from trauma survivors.
Mears’ son survived the Columbine school shooting in 1999, and she went on to study trauma.
The book includes advice from teachers and students who have all been there – from Columbine and Virginia Tech, to September 11th and Hurricane Katrina.
Chapter 12: A Road to Normal
There was an underlying pride that no matter what was said, this staff quietly and with little fanfare or public face had saved over 2,000 lives.
Social Worker, Columbine High School
A recurrent theme in this book has been that traumatic experience affects functioning of individuals and institutions and as a result, reclaiming school in the aftermath requires reasoned adjustment to meet changed needs. Ever since the Columbine tragedy, I have worked to identify what helps people recover from community-wide trauma. This chapter is based on almost 150 hours of interviews with educators, counselors, students, parents, clergy, law enforcement, and victim advocates. I am humbled by their willingness to reflect on troubling events for the purpose of helping others, and I want to thank them here for their assistance. To protect their identity, I refer to them in this chapter by their role rather than by name, unless they have expressly given me permission to quote them directly or have been identified by name in other publications.
While trauma is, by definition, disturbing and life-changing, for many of its victims, the outcomes can be transformative rather than debilitating. One of the lessons from trauma that I especially want to emphasize is that it is a mistake to stereotype survivors as forever broken by their experience. Indeed, while traumatic memory is never erased, many transform their loss into personal growth and a commitment to living a life of purpose.
[Survivors] possess a special sort of wisdom, aware of the greatest threats and the deepest gifts of human existence. Life is simultaneously terrifying and wonderful. Their traumatic experience was undeniably agonizing, and yet, having successfully struggled to rebuild their inner world, survivors emerge profoundly and gratefully aware of the extraordinary value of life in the face of the ever-present possibility of loss. (Janoff-Bulman, 1999, p. 320)
Those interviewed for this book generously shared their experiences and their suggestions for schools and communities. Some of their advice has been covered in detail in other chapters, and to avoid unwarranted duplication, I have chosen to focus this chapter on additional or alternative insights. In doing so, I want to acknowledge the power of all the stories that were shared with me, even if I have not included them here. These points of common ground clearly validate the significance of trauma as a concern for
While the discussion in this chapter is framed in terms of large-scale events, many of the insights have relevance for individual cases as well. A community-wide disaster often attracts an outpouring of support and resources, but the needs of individual students who experience loss or victimization should not be overlooked. The scale is different, the scope of disruption more limited, but some of the recommendations for reclaiming school can be applied to the challenge of helping all students resume their educational path.
Leading in times of trauma
Adept leaders recognize and prepare for a wide range of possibilities, including the potential for crisis. Anticipating and planning for the special needs that result from trauma increase the likelihood for positive outcomes of even the most devastating experiences. Indeed, leadership before, during, and after a crisis often determines the rate of recovery. Responding to a crisis requires the same critical strengths of leadership that are fundamental before; and long-term recovery in the aftermath depends on those strengths being sustained over an unpredictable and often extended period of time. In many ways, the aftermath can be more difficult than the initial crisis, for the resulting anxiety and uncertainty are often compounded by secondary, disruptive events.
Chances for recovery are enhanced by coordination of efforts with others, including people and institutions outside the usual realm of daily educator practice—law enforcement, victim services, crisis responders, and medical and psychological support providers in the larger community. Among the first responses to a disaster will be the activation of emergency protocols and communication networks. Trusting relationships, clear communication, and working agreements built in advance of need increase the quality of the response and can minimize damage and losses.
Crisis communication technology and procedures for responding to a variety of incidents should be designed, tested, and practiced. A comprehensive plan for notifying and reuniting families with loved ones is essential, and details of emergency procedures should be included in information packets that go home at the start of every school year. They should be discussed at staff meetings and drills; they should be posted on the school website; and they should be reviewed and updated throughout the year. Substitute teachers, volunteers, and others who are regularly in the building or on campus also need the information.
Rehearsing emergency protocols in varied situations can prepare students and teachers to make on-the-spot, critical decisions. Evacuation procedures should be conducted under diverse conditions, since situations will change. A parking lot may be undergoing resurfacing, for example, or a building exit may be closed during remodeling. Students need to practice escaping from the building and then going to the designated pick-up spot once they are out. Assembling on the athletic field is not a sufficient strategy.
What actually transpires during an emergency will not look anything as orderly as what is written into the plan. Panic ensues among those exiting the building, while anxious family members descend on the pick-up point, snarling traffic, blocking roadways, and possibly hindering access of emergency vehicles.
Even the chaos of a false alarm can prove a valuable lesson. When an erroneous report of a person with a gun on a school campus caused a crisis situation in a small town, faculty, students, and family members experienced the turmoil of evacuation. Lessons from this event were shared and plans adjusted so that several weeks later when a real emergency occurred, the response was more orderly.
Plans for evacuating students with limited mobility or cognitive delays should be drawn up with input from parents or caregivers. If appropriate, a designated staff member and back-up should be assigned to aid the students in exiting the building. It is important to assign sufficient staff to this role, and to make sure that substitutes know of their responsibilities to assist during an evacuation.
Excerpted from the book RECLAIMING SCHOOL IN THE AFTERMATH OF TRAUMA edited by Carolyn Lunsford Mears. Copyright © 2012 by Carolyn Lunsford Mears. Reprinted with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.