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'You are not alone': Principals offer advice on how to navigate the aftermath of a school shooting

A memorial garden for the 17 people killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Scott McIntyre for NPR
A memorial garden for the 17 people killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

After two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO on April 20, 1999, Principal Frank DeAngelis says he got a call from a colleague — another principal in Paducah, KY who knew all too well what DeAngelis was going through.

Just two years before, Bill Bond had been the principal at Heath High School when a 14-year-old opened fire on a prayer circle and killed three students.

“He called me up and he said, ‘Frank, you don't even know what you need. But here's my number,'” DeAngelis recalled at a panel discussion hosted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals on Monday. “I realized from that point on, it was going to be a marathon and not a sprint.”

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DeAngelis is now part of a nationwide network of school leaders impacted by gun violence who help other principals navigate the aftermath of these devastating events.

At the NASSP event hosted at the Columbine Memorial, DeAngelis and other school leaders shared their experiences.

“I made a commitment that day that I hope I never had to make the phone call Bill made for me,” DeAngelis said. “But unfortunately, many of us here with me have made those phone calls.”

The principals who have lived through school shootings say there’s no way to be fully prepared for these tragedies. But they’re trying to help their colleagues brace for the horrors that could come — by releasing a recovery guide with testimonials and recommendations.

Michelle Kefford became the principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2019, a year after a gunman murdered 17 people and injured 17 others at the school in Parkland. She was one of more than a dozen principals who contributed to the NASSP’s Guide to Recovery.

“The guide provides real accounts from real leaders in these situations and in what they had to do,” Kefford said. “So having their advice, having their input and having their shared experiences really helps me as a leader and I hope to pass that along.”

“As you begin this recovery process, please remember two things: You are not alone, and there is no established timeline for recovery,” the guide reads.

The 16-page document details advice on how to organize offers of assistance, how to help students and staff return to campus, and how to meet the ongoing and long-term mental health needs of the school community.

“While there may not be an exact return to “normal” after a shooting tragedy, you can recover and create a healthy new normal for your school,” the guide states. “Everyone responds to the new normal in different ways — as principal, you must seek to allow your students, staff, and yourself to heal in the way that works best for you and for them to the greatest extent possible.”

When Columbine happened in 1999, there were far fewer schools and students impacted by the country’s gun violence epidemic than there are now. DeAngelis says he hopes that by relying on the guide, school leaders across the country will be better prepared than he was — if and when the time comes.

“I wish that when that horrific event happened, that we had that recovery guide. It tells us what we need to do,” he said. “Because when these events happen, your mind is spinning. And this guide hopefully will provide that strength.”

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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