Their names have become synonymous with loss — Columbine, Sandy Hook and, now, Parkland.
One is nearly 20 years removed from a school shooting. For another slightly more than six years have passed. For the third, the three-month anniversary is coming up.
All are still recovering from an event that can take generations to heal.
“Something can happen in three minutes that be so devastating it can take a community a hundred years to heal,” said Dr. Frederick Withum, superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District.
Finding answers to the nagging question of “why” is part of the healing process.
The school itself is a crime scene so it has to be saved for a time, said Chief Christopher Raubenstine of the Silver Spring Township Police Department. The county’s forensics unit and potentially other agencies like the State Police and the FBI would comb the scene for evidence.
Building relationships among the county police departments in less stressful settings is vital to creating a functioning unit in the event of an incident. That’s one of the reasons police chiefs across Cumberland County get together once a month — to build the relationships between their departments so they can work better together in the event of a major incident, Raubenstine said.
The staff at Cumberland County’s Emergency Operations Center assists investigating agencies with collecting evidence from radio and telephone communications during the incident, said Michele Parsons, emergency operations manager for the county.
Investigating agencies may interview EOC staff members or ask them for documentation on the decisions they made as the incident played out. While the investigation continues, the police department would also bring in experts to debrief officers.
On one hand, they would go through the incident from a tactical perspective looking at what happened and why the officer did what he did as the incident unfolded.
On the other hand, they would walk through the incident from a mental health perspective. In this perspective, the officers may be joined by medics and other emergency services personnel in what might best be considered group therapy. That opens the door for anyone who may need to talk through the incident in more depth with a counselor, Raubenstine said.
After an incident, a number of organizations reach out to offer assistance, but their timing is off. Those involved with the incident are already overwhelmed, and have little time to look through the offers to determine which have the most merit, Raubenstine said.
Instead, they look to the connections already made through the county.
During the incident, the school board remains on the sidelines to offer support and refrain from interfering.
“Upon completion, we would certainly debrief the event, make fact-based changes as needed and continue to provide support as we are able,” said Michael Gossert, president of the Cumberland Valley School Board.
The school board would work through an analysis of what worked, what didn’t and what else needs to be done. The board needs to conduct a rigorous evaluation and be able to be reflective, said Paula Bussard, president of the board of directors for the Carlisle Area School District.
Big Spring School District has trained counselors at its two secondary building, and its elementary school counselors are also trained, said superintendent Dr. Richard Fry. The district can also put word out through the county that counselors are needed and they know counselors will come out.
That happens now.
If there’s any event in a school district, the communication begins. Last month, a girl was killed in a car crash on a Saturday evening. By midday Sunday, Withum said he had seen messages from eight local superintendents and several local high school counselors reaching out to offer assistance. In the past, he’s also seen one school staff send lunch over to another district to encourage them in a difficult time.
There is a common foundation for student assistance and crisis intervention teams that administrators, school counselors and teachers have. Often, this training involves the same language and protocols, making it possible for trained personnel to be included in the counseling efforts after an event, Withum said.
Typically, the districts have a detailed plan for how the counselors will interact with the students. Locations for the counseling services are identified, and supplied with tissues, bottled water and any other needed supplies, Withum said.
Those locations can sometimes be the reunification centers that transition into counseling services or they can be another location that would be logical for students to go if they can’t return to the school building.
The first level of assistance and support is triage to determine who needs further assistance. One child, for example, may visit the counselor and, though they are upset, they also have a support system to help them cope such as a parent who can pick them up from school and have them visit a member of the clergy.
Another equally upset child may visit the counselor, but reveal that they have to go home to an empty house and take care of their younger siblings while a parent works. For this child, the counselor will work to gather the support they need by calling the parents and by finding someone to assist with the younger siblings, Withum said.
Counseling would go on as needed in the district.
“There’s no timeline on that,” Fry said.
It’s also essential to understand that a situation in one building can have an effect on other buildings in the school district as a student affected by a situation at the high school may have younger brothers or sisters in elementary school.
Returning to class
In the days after an incident, the district also needs to think about where to hold classes when they resume. The building may still be a crime scene so classes may need to be held somewhere else. The district may also choose to move classes if something happens at one building on a multibuilding campus. For some students, the mere sight of that building could be traumatizing.
At some point, there comes the decision of whether the building reopens at all. Sandy Hook Elementary was demolished, and officials at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have announced they plan to demolish the building in which the shooting occurred.
If the district has to hold classes in a different building after an incident, the EOC assists with bus routes, making sure the district’s transportation department knows which roads are closed. They would also assist with making sure the building meets Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, that there are no health and safety hazards and that approval from the state is obtained to hold classes there.
Even with all the counseling, recovery will take time.
The 911 dispatcher who took a call may appear fine, but take a call years later that acts as a trigger to rekindle memories of that day, Parsons said.
A parent who survived an incident in the school may harbor fears as their children enter the school system.
Anniversaries of the incident will be recalled in memory and in the media for years.
People from outside the area who hear the name of the town or of the school will show a spark of recognition, recalling the news reports and the devastation of the school’s darkest day.
This is how it takes generations to recover.
Email Tammie at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TammieGitt.