Fighting back

7th June 2013 at 01:00
Six months after 20 children and six teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the US, Jon Marcus visits the town and talks to educators about what lessons can be learned from the tragedy

It is an irony not lost on Janet Robinson that the offices of Newtown Public Schools in Connecticut, US, are in a converted psychiatric hospital.

In the six months since the shooting that led to the deaths of 20 children and six adults in the district's Sandy Hook Elementary School, Robinson, Newtown's former superintendent of schools, and her staff have learned the value of humour as a coping mechanism.

That is one of many lessons from the tragedy in Newtown - and those before it - that Robinson and others at the epicentres of these traumatic events say can benefit all educators. Following contingency plans and not letting them slide into obsolescence is another. Then there are maintaining open lines of communication with emergency service officials, training teachers in preventing and responding to violence and, most important of all, considering the inconceivable.

"What I hope people understand is that if it can happen in Newtown, it can happen anyplace," Robinson says.

This town of graceful colonial homes, wide lawns and stone walls in Connecticut's Fairfield County, about 60 miles from New York City, was propelled into unwanted notoriety last December when a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza shot his way through a glass door to gain entry to Sandy Hook, a school for four- to 10-year-olds. He then took the lives of 26 people, most of them children aged 6-7, before turning the gun on himself. Authorities say that Lanza also fatally shot his mother earlier that day.

It was the second-deadliest mass shooting by an individual in US history, after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University that resulted in the deaths of 33 people, including the gunman.

In Newtown, green and white ribbons still flutter from utility poles along Main Street in memory of the victims, and the flag outside the school district offices is at half mast - this time for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing in April.

"It all came back to me when I saw that on TV," Robinson says.

What she relived was the moment on Friday 14 December when a secretary caught up with her outside her office. A school bus driver had reported a shooting at Sandy Hook. Assuming that the shooting was not at the school but somewhere in the neighbourhood, which is known by the same name, Robinson called the principal's office. There was no answer.

"That was my first alarm," she says.

The frazzled desk sergeant at the local police department could not provide much help, so Robinson sped to the site and came upon a scene of chaos, with ambulances and police cars clogging the road. She left her car on an embankment and ran the rest of the way.

Waiting in a neighbouring fire station with frantic parents and others, she felt helpless. "When the incredible first occurs and so much is out of your control, you don't know what to do," she says. "That was the most frustrating thing for me. I had no information for a long time. I didn't know what the message was for the parents. It would have been a lot easier for me if I had known what I was dealing with."

In their conversations since the shooting, Robinson says that she and emergency officials have worked to improve the exchange of information. That is something that other schools, areas and districts where shootings have occurred have also learned.

"It's critical. Relationships matter," says John McDonald, executive director of security and emergency management for Jeffco (Jefferson County) Public Schools in Colorado, whose Columbine High School was the scene of a shooting in 1999, when two teenagers killed 12 of their fellow students and a teacher before committing suicide.

The huge Jefferson County district, which has almost 86,000 students, spans eight law-enforcement jurisdictions. Today, they and school administrators use the same communication system and radio frequencies, and rehearse the process of reuniting parents with their children in a crisis.

On high alert

One question is whether students who have been locked in other schools as a precaution should be allowed to go home. That was an issue that Robinson had to deal with. When the bullets started flying in the Sandy Hook school, the district's six other schools and 5,000 students were placed on high alert, and left in frightening limbo.

"As a partner with the police and first responders there, I needed to know the situation. But I didn't know what to say," Robinson says. "I didn't know what we were dealing with for hours. I had six other schools on lockdown and I needed to know what to do with them."

The shooting had begun at 9.35am, but it wasn't until after midnight that the basic facts had been established and all the parents of the children who had died had been notified.

One thing that authorities had learned by then was that Lanza had shot his way through a locked glass door, which had a closed-circuit television camera and a buzzer for security. It was the kind of emergency provision that many US schools had instituted after Columbine and other incidents. Classroom volunteers were always fingerprinted and Newtown's schools had "lockdown drills" - one took place at Sandy Hook about six weeks before the shooting.

But Robinson says that it is hard to keep people focused on security. There were three security guards for all of Newtown's schools, and a security director, but town officials had turned down a proposal to hire more. (After the Sandy Hook shooting, the school board voted to put an officer in every school.)

And when memories faded of school shootings elsewhere, people would grow lax. "I would walk through the elementary schools and see doors propped open," Robinson says. "If a teacher in a back hallway has a door propped open, why bother with the locked door and the camera?"

These concerns resonate across the US, a country traumatised by the number of school massacres that have taken place there. But they also hold true in other countries, which are far from invulnerable. Few could forget the 1996 attack in a school in Dunblane, Scotland, in which 16 children and one teacher were killed. Most of the victims were just five years old.

There is a need for constant drills, says Dr Daniel Domenech, director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Because, yes, there is a tendency after a while for people to say, `Hey, this is ridiculous, nothing's going to happen. Let's open the window.'"

`Enormous responsibility'

On the morning after the Sandy Hook shooting, Robinson arrived at her office to find that her entire staff had shown up, unasked. "They all needed to do something," she says.

And there was plenty to do. Secretaries in the sleepy district were suddenly pressed into service answering calls from national politicians and international media. A school principal started combing through the 13,000 emails that flooded in. The website crashed.

"There's no playbook that tells you what needs to be done," Robinson says. "But there are people around you who have emotional needs, and they also need someone to tell them what to do."

Her first order of business was to quash reports that Lanza's mother was a teacher at the school, one of the rumours that had circulated in the absence of verified facts. Ryan Lanza, Adam's brother, was also wrongly identified as the shooter.

"The media was a big, big distraction because they were hungry for information," Robinson says. "Some of them were doing things that were inappropriate. People were still grieving." And yet those people had to contend with satellite trucks and spotlights in their gardens. "All of a sudden it becomes this enormous responsibility that was never part of your job before. You didn't know who to talk to or what to say."

To set things straight, Robinson went to a park that had been set up as an information centre. "I had been in my bubble and saw thousands of media there," she says. "You understand cognitively that this was an international event, but you don't fully appreciate that until you see the Japanese camera crews."

Taking control

Robinson was used to the glare of local public scrutiny. After several heavily publicised run-ins with the school board, she had accepted a job as head of another district on the night before the shooting (she has since resigned from Newtown after sticking things out for most of the academic year). But nothing could have prepared her for the level of media exposure that she would end up dealing with.

Nor did anyone have experience of dealing with the outpouring of international goodwill: two truckloads of toys and 450 teddy bears were donated to the town. "What do I do with toys?" Robinson says. "And that was just the beginning."

While other town departments dealt with the logistics, Robinson and her team tried to figure out how and when to reopen the schools. On the Sunday after the shooting, teachers and other employees met for a presentation by a psychologist trained in trauma, who told them how to help their students. That night, the superintendent found herself on a dais with President Barack Obama at an interfaith memorial service.

"A lot of things were happening," she says. "We were all engaged in work and the work was my therapy."

One asset that Newtown did have was an electronic system for communicating directly with parents. This was used to convey information in the days and weeks after the shooting. Some school districts can now send text messages to parents' mobile phones.

"Parents, once they have information, feel more comfortable and confident," McDonald says. But he adds that many US districts still do not have these kinds of systems in place.

Debate about when to reopen was fierce. Some teachers said that they were not ready to come back. But Robinson persisted. "On a beautiful day with nothing going on, I have vulnerable students. I didn't want them staying at home when something bad had happened. They needed structure. Kids need structure," she says. "What I also know is that kids are good for teachers. And my teachers were stronger than they thought they were."

Some teachers still complain privately that they did not receive enough support for the trauma they had suffered.

Classes resumed on Tuesday (four days after the shooting), except at Sandy Hook, which remained a crime scene. Its students were moved to another school, which opened on 3 January. Trauma teams of psychologists and other experts were deployed, and substitute teachers were called in to be on hand if full-time teachers needed to take breaks.

The Newtown shooting also exposed how interconnected a community is with its schools. Even adults who were not related to the victims generally knew one or more of them: they had been their sports coaches or babysitters. Psychologists manned drop-in centres for those people, too.

All that support was temporary, however. "The trauma teams are trained to deal with awful situations but they're not long-term," Robinson says. "We're not instantly cured. There's not a time limit that says, after three weeks you're cured."

"People tend to think the crisis is over, and in a few months everyone will be OK," McDonald adds. "We still see significant problems with students who were at Columbine."

In addition to the security officers, the town has hired extra counsellors and school psychologists. "We have no budget for this," Robinson says. "I've lost a lot of sleep over having made long-term commitments." She also cajoled many of the people who had volunteered into staying.

`How do we prepare for the future?'

Robinson and others say that schools of education should coach their student teachers in how to deal with such tragedies. "What we tend to rely on is our school psychologists and counsellors being trained for a crisis. And this was beyond what even my trained people were prepared for," she says.

Training teachers in trauma counselling "is an area that we're really far behind in", Domenech says. "A lot of these traumatic experiences have long-lasting effects, and just having a counsellor for a week or so is not going to deal with it. More of it has to be internal, within the staff and driven by the staff."

And this training should be not only in how to respond to such crimes but also in how to prevent them.

"Where we could do better is, when teachers are in school, there ought to be a school safety 101 (introductory) class that every up-and-coming teacher has to go through," McDonald says. "Teachers today are not only teachers: they have to be the emergency managers of their classrooms. Shame on us if we don't take that responsibility seriously."

In Newtown, not only did there turn out to be a need for better relationships with law-enforcement agencies, but schools also needed to have a better knowledge of the mental health services available in the community, Robinson says.

There was another, unexpected challenge: checking the backgrounds of the many volunteers who wanted to help. The state's superintendents' organisations brought in experts who had dealt with similar situations in locations from Norway to New Orleans.

"I used that network to help me vet the most effective people," Robinson says. Those who were turned away "were not so much the wrong people, but they didn't come to me with the credentials that showed they were the right people".

Next came the conspiracy theorists and gun advocates who rose up in response to the demands for gun control that followed Sandy Hook. Robinson found herself in yet another position for which superintendents are not prepared. "We had threats, people saying it was staged." Here her experience with the school board came in handy: "I am accustomed to having a target on my back," she says.

Other US school districts are adding various emergency plans: microphones developed for children with hearing impairments are being used by teachers to speak to head office in emergencies; fire alarms are also being used to alert police departments; cameras are being installed in classrooms.

In Jefferson County, children are being taught how to hide and barricade themselves in classrooms or closets.

"We have conversations with kids that are age-appropriate," McDonald says. "They love the code words we use: `locks, lights, out of sight.' The new conversation is what to do when you're under fire. We're giving teachers strategies: how can you keep kindergarteners quiet? Kindergarteners love to play hide-and-seek, and the teachers can quietly read a story to them to keep them engaged. As the students get a little older, we're knocking on doors and saying, `Police department, open up, open up.' We train our kids that you do not open those doors when you're under lockdown."

"After you go through a terrible tragedy, you start to think, how do we prepare for the future? Somebody in each district has to be doing that every single day," McDonald adds. "It's difficult for people to live their lives worrying about what could happen. These are low-probability, incredibly high-impact tragedies. But there are enough of them that we can't not think about it. We can't not prepare for it."

About 130 fatal school shootings took place in the US between Columbine in 1999 and Sandy Hook in 2012. Now, between instruction in reading and mathematics, students are learning how to hide from gunmen.

It is sad, McDonald acknowledges. But "we have to understand those lessons learned, and capture what we've been through and what others have been through, and make sure our teachers understand that it's a mindset: what will you do to protect your kids?"

Photo credit: PA

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