Memorial crosses for school shooting victims
Leadership Insights

Post-Crisis Challenges Associated with School Shootings

By Gail Kirby, EdD October 20, 2018

We never want to think about our worst fears but, when it comes to our school’s crisis preparedness, we need to make sure we have the proper protocol in place. Research indicates that schools are the least prepared to handle crises such as school shootings. Scant evidence-based data exist to help understand the challenges that school districts face in emotionally charged moments following a crisis. But it’s crucial that we learn from what schools have had to endure.

In addition to other researchers, I have explored the post-crisis experiences and communication responsibilities of administrators, teachers, students, and communities. Let’s take a closer look at what has been collectively uncovered so that you can share these insights and strategies with your school.

Common communication challenges during and after a crisis

There are three stages identified in crisis research: prevention, response, and recovery. The response stage is a critical piece of the puzzle and communication is the key. The communication challenges that have been identified include what occurred immediately following the crisis, as well as what occurred afterward (up to a first-year commemoration).

Six areas were highlighted as notable:

  • Notification and identification: Primarily post-crisis location accuracy of the victims, lack of up-to-date family contact information, and response to school employees and the community
  • Counseling services: Validating counselor credentials, handling pressures from solicitor counselors, considering long-term effects on the school population
  • Emotional aspects of crisis: High levels of stress and confusion during the crisis, the need for emotional expression, dealing with the stigma of the crisis, reminders of anniversaries, social media interference
  • Event commemoration: Critical for recovery and renewal, but avoiding the activation of emotional triggers
  • Donation management: Surprisingly, donations can pose challenges to the community, the school, and the students. Who do donated monetary funds go to and when? Some districts hired outside counsel for this. People want to help. Memorial shrines are erected, plaques are hung, and gardens are planted, requiring ongoing maintenance costs and, for some, these donations become constant painful reminders of the tragedy. School communities must decide how to honor families whose loss is so personal.
  • Legal issues: Public release of information must be timed appropriately to avoid legal repercussions

It is a daunting undertaking to plan ahead for a crisis, much less in the moment, to respond as planned to an unthinkable tragedy. Even with the best-practiced plans in place, no one is fully prepared to respond to horrific violence. Those interviewed reflected on what could have been communicated better, quicker, differently. Lessons learned have enabled district, school, and community resources to gather the best crisis management strategies to date as a dynamic blueprint of sorts for both pre- and post-crisis events.

Helpful post-crisis strategies

Post-crisis strategies help manage recovery and renewal. Some of the strategies that were identified as powerful from interviews and supporting research were:

Some schools have reached out to others post-crisis to ask what they’ve learned from their own tragedies. Administrators from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School reached out to former Columbine High School principal, Frank DeAngelis. DeAngelis’s advice highlighted possible triggers for traumatized students and staff: the sound of balloons popping, war footage that might be shown in history classes, the sound of the fire alarm (since it was pulled during both of these school shootings), and feelings of loss that inevitably emerge around events like prom and graduation.

DeAngelis also pointed out the many ways in which his colleagues and students dealt with the Columbine shooting. “Some people needed to constantly talk about the experience and their feelings…You had others who felt that ‘The sooner I get back to teaching and get back to the activities I was involved with prior to the tragedy, it will help me move forward.’”

The power of sharing key findings brings schools together. It creates a sense of support and students, staff members, and families are able to share wisdom gained through reflection, analysis, and open communication.

Equipping teachers, staff, and school leaders with what they need

At this time, few teacher preparation and school leadership programs offer courses to educate and help prepare districts and classrooms for such emotionally packed events, yet clearly this is needed. Programs should include investigation on and instruction in what has been mentioned.

It’s also crucial that we consider what has not been mentioned yet: building strong media relationships both before and after a crisis, identifying local resources, training staff, students, and the community on crisis drills, developing trauma and resilience skills, identifying expert counselors to teach surviving victims how to manage emotional triggers that can persist for years, practicing post-crisis management strategies, and learning ways to renew, rather than simply rebuild.

Concordia University-Portland’s MEd in Curriculum & Instruction: Trauma & Resilience in Educational Settings offer courses that will help you examine effective responses to student trauma and the resilience necessary to thrive in the classroom.

Additional resources

Gail Kirby is an associate professor of special education at Western Kentucky University in the College of Education and Behavioral Studies, School of Teacher Education. Her research interests include curriculum development (a future product from the findings on communication crisis), students with disabilities, long-term English Language Learners, online teaching and learning, and teacher quality. She is an alumna of the University of San Francisco.


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