The aftermath of a school tragedy: some coping strategies
I was the principal of the high school in Montourville, Pennsylvania, when TWA Flight 800 blew up off Long Island in July 1996. The recent tragedy in Connecticut, like the other school tragedies we witness, always brings thoughts not only about the disaster itself, but about the tragedy that follows such a disaster. In 1996, our school lost 16 students and 5 adults. In the weeks and months that followed, some of the following events occurred that no school can prepare for and usually have to “make up” as they go along. Some suggestions are included to manage this.
1. The coroner must positively identify each victim. Parents will not be able to see their child again, so dental records and DNA samples will be required. Think about what it would have been like to be at the firehouse last Friday in Connecticut when the parents heard the news about their son.
2. Gifts and money (there were just thousands of teddy bears) will come from all over the world: a quilt from a private girls’ school in Kolkata, handmade cards made by children in Ghana, a handmade mural by children in a school in Darwin, Australia… the gifts will keep coming. One day the school will have to decide something that will cause great consternation: the decision to “focus our attention on the living”. No one will know what to do with all the gifts. Do you make a permanent memorial? Do we store them? Can’t we get rid of them properly? what do we do? The day will come when the school, not the families, will have no choice but to move forward, and there will be great discussions about the timeline for this adjustment…the Superintendent will be severely judged for the decision to move forward.
3. Funerals will be heartbreaking enough…but cemeteries will present a surreal scene of untold grief. There will be Christmas trees with lights running from a generator and presents under the tree (because the kid will need something to play with in heaven) and stockings hung on headstones and Christmas carols playing from some electronic device. Some people will have life-size cutouts of their child standing near the Christmas tree in the house. I saw this. It was devastating and still is today for me.
4. Siblings will become very angry with their parents, who, quite rightly, will never get over the death of a child, leaving the sibling feeling less loved and abandoned.
5. Many families will start a fund in their children’s name with all the best intentions. However, large sums of money will come from all corners of the world and there will be endless evening meetings trying to come to some agreement on what to do with all the money with the now angry and still grieving parents.
6. Eventually another disaster will strike like it did with us where I was talking to Wolf Blitzer one day and all the satellite link trucks and black limousines carrying TV news celebrities disappeared the next when a handmade nail bomb went off in the Atlanta Olympic Games. . Suddenly, we no longer existed from a news point of view… which should have been, on the surface, good news, but then we were really alone.
These are just a few of the horrible things that will occur as these consequences unfold. Here are a few things, we came up with on the spur of the moment, that worked for us…
1. Volunteers will come from everywhere…don’t turn them away…you help them and yourself if you can come up with something for them to do where there is no work…people need to be around other people in a tragedy . We had guidance counselors, teachers, ministers, and soldiers, and just moms, dads, grandparents, and students showing up from everywhere. We gave everyone something to do… some old people were making balls of tape to help hang up the emails… .
2. Religious people of all faiths will come…leave a place of reflection for all religions…for us Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most helpful as they organized and posted each email on the wall and took care of daily from the thousands of live plants and flowers that were sent to our school from everywhere as will happen in Newtown. Don’t exclude anyone… allow all religions to leave literature in a quiet and respectful place. Keep in touch with the local minister, usually made up of all the clergy in town…they can help spread messages to their respective flocks and help in a variety of ways.
3. Hire a company that handles the establishment of trust funds and large donations. This will involve many hours and school officials have schools to run and their whole lives will be spent in things they have no experience in… these people need to do their best to live. logical thinking required in such meetings.
4. The school must respect mental health professionals and grievance counselors, but someone must be in charge of these people and the Superintendent and administrators must never forget that they are in charge of the building and not the mental health professionals . Madam Superintendent, try not to hand over control of the building to people who lack that kind of experience, just as you lack the experience to give advice. It is not an exaggeration, in my experience, to say that sometimes the comfort dogs that were brought in often provided more instant relief to the bereaved.
5. School Board members should be reminded that they are citizens like everyone else, unless they come together as a body and vote for something as a group. Individual Board members will enter the school, each with their own agenda for how things should run…a strong superintendent has to keep control of this or chaos will ensue with everyone giving conflicting instructions and coming up with creative ideas. but contradictory. individual board members should be taking orders, not giving them in this environment.
6. Kids are so much more resilient than we think… At one point in the fall, a group of students said… “This isn’t another special program for us poor, downtrodden students in Montoursville, is it? In others I mean, they were ready to move on even though the adults wanted to “help” them some more… talk to students about when they have had enough “help”—they always know.
7. Adults will deny that they need counseling, thinking that only children need professional help. Making teachers take a week off using substitute teachers in some organized way…they have to go away for a while whether they admit it or not…I still cry from all these tragedies from the thoughts that come back to me. I was the tough guy who was supposed to be in charge… paying attention to the needs of adults, we didn’t do that enough.
These are just a few thoughts from someone who had to deal with the aftermath of the disaster… not all TV spokespeople know what they’re talking about. They never had to deal with anything like this.