The aftermath of a school tragedy: some coping strategies

I was the high school principal in Montourville, Pennsylvania, when TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island in July 1996. The recent tragedy in Connecticut, like the other school tragedies we have witnessed, 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. Some suggestions for managing this are included.

1. The medical examiner must positively identify each victim. The parents will not be able to see their child again, so dental records and DNA samples will be required. Think of 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 Calcutta, cards handmade by children in Ghana, a mural handmade by children in a school in Darwin, Australia… the gifts will keep on 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 timing of this adjustment…the Superintendent will be severely judged for the decision to move forward.

3. Funerals will be harrowing enough… but cemeteries will present a surreal scene of untold sorrow. There will be Christmas trees with lights powered by a generator and gifts under the tree (because the child will need something to play with in heaven) and stockings hung on tombstones and Christmas carols playing on 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 it still is today for me.

4. Siblings will become very angry with their parents, who rightfully 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 names with all good 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 happen like it happened with us where I was talking to Wolf Blitzer one day and all the sat-link trucks and black limousines carrying TV news celebrities were gone the next when a hand-made nail bomb went off in the Atlanta Olympic Games. . Suddenly, we were no longer there from a news standpoint… which should have been, on the surface, good news, but then we were really on our own.

These are just some of the horrible things that will happen as these consequences unfold. Here are some things, which 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 invent 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 plain moms, dads, grandparents, and students who showed up from everywhere. We gave everyone something to do…some elders were making balls of tape to help hang up the emails….

2. Religious people of all faiths will come…leave a reflection space for all faiths…for us Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most helpful as they organized and hung 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 far and wide as will happen in Newtown. Do not 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 clerics in the city…they can help spread messages to their respective flocks and help in a variety of ways.

3. Hire a company that deals with setting up trust funds and major donations. This will take long hours and school officials have schools to run and their whole lives will be spent doing things they have no experience with…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 brought more instant relief to bereaved people.

5. School Board members should be reminded that they are citizens like everyone else, unless they meet as a body and vote for something as a group. Individual Board members will walk into the school, each with their own agenda for how things should work…a strong superintendent has to stay in control of this or chaos will ensue with everyone giving conflicting instructions and coming up with creative ideas but contradictory. individual board members should take orders, not give them in this environment.

6. Kids are 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 of Montoursville, is it? In other words, they were ready to move on even though the adults wanted to “help” them a bit more… talk to students about when they’ve had enough “help”—they always know.

7. Adults will deny that they need advice thinking that only children need help from professionals. Making teachers take a week’s vacation 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 for 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 the 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 something like this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *