As principals, we are members of a club we wish no school officials had to join.
Our collective experiences include tragic gun violence at Columbine High School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Sandy Hook Elementary and other schools in the past 25 years.
We are founding members of the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Principal Recovery Network, a group of present and former school leaders who have been through school active-shooter incidents or have led a school community in the immediate aftermath of one of these tragic events.
And while we celebrated the recent passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in Congress, a bill that will undoubtedly help prevent violence and provide schools with much-needed resources, the unfortunate reality is that many schools will suffer shootings in the coming years.
Until the nation reaches a time when full, comprehensive action is taken to end all gun violence in our schools and communities, we have decided to share our collective wisdom with our peers in a “Guide to Recovery” to help them deal with the tragic violence that far too many will be forced to face. Our free guide can be accessed on the website of the Principal Recovery Network.
Until the nation reaches a time when full, comprehensive action is taken to end all gun violence in our schools and communities, we have decided to share our collective wisdom.
The guide is a collection of personal best practices and practical advice organized into five areas. It’s also a concise, pragmatic resource that will aid school administrators as they come to grips with a school and community forever changed.
Most importantly, our guide offers advice on how to listen to stakeholders without judgment in the days after a shooting, and it comes with the full support of its 20 authors, who painstakingly delved into the nuances of school active-shooter incidents and their impacts and distilled the lessons learned.
One principal called it the most useful tool she’s received, and says she keeps it in a folder on her desk, picking it up to ask: “What did they all do in this situation?”
Leading our communities through the aftermath of incredible trauma has given us a depth of wisdom and knowledge about the long-lasting effects violence has on school campuses and how this trauma can manifest weeks, months and even years later. Our guide offers concrete next steps after a school shooting, from advice on what to do as students are reunified with their families, to how to process the outpouring of grief from a world watching your community in crisis.
What our guide does not do is provide all the resources to implement these best practices. Without key support beyond the school building, many of our recommendations will be impossible to fulfill. And our advice will not work without strong partnerships with local and federal governments.
For example, as school leaders, we cannot fully address the grieving and healing process of all families, students, teachers and staff on our own. Whether or not the event caused fatalities or injuries, the mental and emotional well-being of every member of the school community has been damaged; they all require tools and resources to support the healing process.
These include years of professional mental health support, the creation of a wellness center within the school and the provision of ongoing help for graduating seniors whose pain won’t end at the high school doors.
A school shooting will forever be a part of the history of the community, with the event and subsequent recovery permeating every piece of school culture. Administrators will continue to face decisions about annual commemorations and memorials for the students who lost their lives.
Our guide walks school leaders through the process of making these decisions in consultation with passionate stakeholders. It’s critical for school and district leaders to consult students, families and community officials as partners in this work to collectively make the best decisions.
The road to recovery for all survivors of school shootings is challenging. We hope our “Guide to Recovery” helps communities heal from these terrible tragedies and move forward together.
We know, however, that as educators, we can only do so much. Ultimately, we need our state and federal representatives to support additional comprehensive legislation to prevent future violence and give the growing number of school shooting survivors a clear path to recovery.
At the very least, we need our elected leaders to maintain a laser focus on providing schools with everything they need to mend after a shooting, no matter what it takes. Surely, we can all agree that our kids deserve that much.
Greg Johnson is principal of West Liberty-Salem High School in Champaign County, Ohio, and a founding member and co-facilitator of the NASSP Principal Recovery Network. In January 2017 a student opened fire in his high school’s restroom and hallway, critically injuring one student and resulting in an emergency evacuation of the high school and middle school.
Elizabeth Brown is the former principal of Forest High School in Marion County, Florida, and a founding member and co-facilitator of the NASSP Principal Recovery Network. She led her school through the aftermath of an active-shooter incident in April 2018.
This story about school active-shooter incidents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.