It will be several weeks before students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, go back to classes, and emotions will be raw.
“When school resumes, it will all became real again, and students and staff are going to need a lot of help coping,” says Kim Lane, coordinator of the Ohio Education Association (OHEA) Crisis Response Team, who is working on the ground in Newtown.
The original Sandy Hook Elementary school building has been closed indefinitely, and students and staff will be relocated to the neighboring town of Monroe. Even though a tenuous sense of normalcy may return in the weeks and months following, the slightest reminder can bring that dark day rushing back in all its horror. A book dropping, a door slamming, or even a certain smell can set off a panicked reaction. However, Lane explains, this is a normal reaction for anyone who has suffered trauma, and it could persist for many years to come.
The Ohio Education Association (OHEA) is one of several NEA state affiliates with organized crisis response teams that are part of the NEA Health Information Network Safe Schools Initiative, which is dispatched to help members deal with traumatic events or emergencies (OHEA, California Teachers Association, and Education Minnesota have the most established crisis response teams). Usually, teams respond within their own state, but in the case of major emergencies like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, they rush to assist other state affiliates.
Volunteers pitch in where they’re needed—from media management and development of member advocacy programs to ensuring that members have mental health support. Often, crisis team members are trained to provide direct intervention and mental health support themselves.
In Newtown, mental health counseling remains critical for the school community, and not just for the young students.
“We are urging educators to recognize that they have been through a brutal tragedy, and it is okay to take advantage of mental health services,” says Jerald Newberry, Executive Director, NEA Health Information Network (NEA HIN). “I emphasize the word ‘health’ because the heart and mind need healing now and in the weeks and months ahead.”
Helping School Staff Cope By Listening to Fears
“So often the school staff will care for their traumatized students and put them first, but then who is there for the staff?” Lane asks. “Staff members are victims, too, and they need someone to talk with that can understand their fears and anxieties. Only then will they be able to handle the fears of the kids.”
Trained to understand that staff may feel an array of emotions, including grief, loss and guilt, a response crisis team member’s most important responsibility is to listen and provide a judgment-free environment where staff can talk openly. They may be unable to complete school routines, find it difficult to concentrate on lessons, or need time to address physical and mental distress.
Staff may also have a heightened concern about student safety and well-being, and feel an overwhelming responsibility to keep students safe.
“As advocates for educators and former educators ourselves, we understand what it’s like for them,” says Lane. In other words, Lane and other NEA crisis responders can empathize in a way that people who have never been responsible for 20-plus children five days a week cannot.
Lessons from Columbine
April 20, 1999—a Tuesday—two teenagers went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado. Marilyn Rogers had been interim executive director of the Colorado Education Association for one week. She immediately went into crisis response mode to help her colleagues and neighbors—not only did she work closely with the educators in Jefferson County, she lived there, too. Rogers mobilized grief counselors, and reshuffled an already-scheduled Colorado delegate assembly into a memorial service where the daughter of one of the fallen teachers spoke.
Rogers says the Sandy Hook tragedy churns up the emotions of terror and chaos from that horrible day 13 years ago, and her heart breaks for those having to deal with it now in Connecticut. But experience births knowledge. Rogers says she learned during Columbine about the importance of attending closely to educators who responded to the crisis.
“Often we think of the fire, rescue and police as first responders, but our educators and our association staff are, too,” she says. Like Newtown, Columbine’s educators were the first to help traumatized and injured students, and in the days following, association and school staff are the first to help them find support and counseling.
“They were dealing with the NEA members on the front line, people we all knew, and it was deeply personal,” says Rogers. “Frequent face-to-face gatherings helped keep our receptionists, secretaries, and staff working with teachers and all school employees informed and literally in-touch with each other. We need on-going connecting and nurturing with all of our frontline, first-engagers.”
After a tragedy like a school shooting, everyone in the education community goes into crisis response mode, which creates post-traumatic stress for helpers. Rogers says it’s important to provide support in the form of hugs and face-to-face contact.
“It’s kind of like scar tissue,” she says. “You need to massage it and attend to it before it hardens.”
She also cautions the Newtown community to be aware of the ripple effect and the echo of those ripples.
“The images and impacts of violence have an unforeseeable impact on each of us,” she says. “There is no way of knowing what will trigger these deep emotions.”
Following the shooting, representatives from CEA and Jefferson County Education Association convened with Jerald Newberry, Executive Director of the NEA Health Information Network. The meeting resulted in NEA HIN’s Safe Schools Initiative, curriculum, and School Crisis Guide.
Since, schools and districts have adopted policies and procedures to deal with school crises, but there is a long way to go. NEA HIN is reviewing and updating its crisis prevention and planning program as part of the ongoing effort to keep schools as safe as possible.
“As we enter this national dialogue on ending violence and building a more peaceable society, we must focus on how we can live together in community, to end isolation and alienation, and to truly be one human family,” says Rogers.
The OHEA Crisis Response Team will provide assistance to CEA for as long as they are needed, knowing that neither students, staff, nor the Newtown community will ever fully heal from this tragedy.
“They will have to endure year after year of holidays and birthdays without their loved one, and every year they’ll feel the pain anew on of the anniversary of the massacre,” says Lane. “We all need to remember this and be there for them, year after year, to show them they are not alone.”