Keeping Schools Open after Violence
The recent tragedy at Success Tech in Cleveland on October 10, when a student injured two students and two teachers before turning a gun on himself, resulted in the closure the next day, a Thursday, of the entire Cleveland school system of 50,000 students. Schools had previously been scheduled to be closed for Friday of that week for teacher in-service, and the CEO of Cleveland's schools felt that "students needed a breather."
In my previous district, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, a student at Jersey Villae High School was carrying a gun for protection and it discharged accidentally in a classroom, wounding another student. The school was evacuated and students went home. Once the immediate medical, police and parental notifications and support were handled, the next question debated by the school and district crisis team was, "Should we hold school the next day?"
When to Reopen
My examples raise the question: When is the best time to reopen school? My experience has been that such a complicated decision is best made by a team composed of school administrators, police, and mental health representatives.
We considered various issues in deciding when to reopen school. Cypress-Fairbanks has many working parents, and canceling classes the next day would have resulted in many students being unsupervised. Schools offer some of the greatest sources of support. If school is closed, students do not receive that support.
The crisis literature emphasizes the importance of early intervention and of ensuring that all students have the opportunity to talk about and write about their thoughts and emotions. Students are often best assisted in a group setting and are able to help each other, with the school providing the forum for students to be together with classmates and friends.
Our plans were also affected by the knowledge that school is one of the safest places for children in the United States and that fewer than 1 percent of violent deaths of children occur at school. In fact, the most likely place for children to be murdered is in their own homes.
How to Reopen
Once the decision was made to reopen school the next day, the following steps were taken.
All of the students' families were contacted. Local media were asked to announce the reopening of school, and information was posted on the school's Web site and publicized using the district television station. The answering machine at school had a recorded message stating that school would be open and counselors would be on hand to assist students as necessary. In addition, numerous informal networks and calling trees were created to clarify that school would be open.
A lengthy faculty meeting was scheduled before school to ensure that all school staff received the support they needed so they would be able to assist students. Teachers were encouraged to give students permission for a range of emotions and to provide opportunities for students to express emotions through talking, writing, artwork and special projects. A script was developed for teachers outlining what to say to students in classes and how to make the near tragedy a "teachable moment" to reduce the likelihood of future shootings and violence. The faculty meeting ensured that teachers were prepared to implement the lesson. The lesson plan we developed is available on the Web site of the National Association of School Psychologists at www.nasponline.org.
In addition to these steps, additional counselors and psychologists were brought in from other schools in the district to assist with navigating through students' various emotional responses and to help teachers implement the lesson plan. Also, students were provided with an opportunity to reach out to the injured student and invited to participate in school safety and prevention programs.
In the End
In working directly with schools and students in the aftermath of 11 school shootings, I have learned that there are times when a school remains a crime scene for days, and in some cases weeks. However, most schools have located alternative sites where students can be transferred temporarily. And many churches and local municipalities are welcoming to schools that have been displaced because of a tragedy. Whether students and staff can return to their own schools, or they find themselves conducting classes in other facilities,it is my hope that school administrators will view closing school as the last option and not the first one. If a school does need to be closed, it should reopen quickly, even if the setting is an alternative one.
Scott Poland is chair of the National Emergency Assistance Team for the National Association of School Psychologists and a faculty member at Nova Southeastern University.