As a recovering principal, you never forget the experiences you faced. Traumatic, high-stress events become permanently ingrained into the rest of our lives. And as much as we try to forget and move on, all it takes is one reminder and we are right back
to the moment, the event, the decisions, and all the related emotions.
On May 24, 2022, we were all given a reminder through yet another horrific school shooting and the tragic deaths of innocent students and teachers. For those in education, these unimaginable events generate additional emotions and trauma. And for principals
and assistant principals, the emotions become even more complex and traumatic. Complex because we move from anger and defeat to shock, horror, sadness, and, unfortunately, the relief it wasn’t at our school.
School shootings send waves of emotions through every school administrator across the country. We feel the pain of the community and turn our attention to our own schools. We immediately wonder: Who are we missing? Who isn’t connected? Who is hurting?
Who is absent from a meaningful relationship with an adult? Who is angry? Who is capable of harming others? Who has access to weapons? Who is living absent of hope?
We know the fragility of our youth. We know their struggles, their trials, their battles, and their challenges. We know their mental health is at a breaking point. And we do our best to keep a pulse on just how close they are to breaking, especially post-pandemic.
We also always have in the back of our minds, the constant, nagging sensation of whether today is our day that something goes horribly wrong and we didn't do enough. We hope our relationships are strong enough that someone will say something if someone
is hurting enough to do something.
Before I go too much further, I’m not naïve enough to think relationships alone are going to prevent school shootings. Nor am I insinuating relationships would have prevented previous tragedies. However, I am suggesting relationships have and
always will matter. We can’t snap our fingers and change local, state, or federal policy, but we can double down on relationships. And while I’m focusing on relationships in this post as something we can all work on, please check out the
National Association of Secondary School Principals Action Alert from the Principal Recovery Network if you’d like to take more action and encourage your elected officials to do something.
The Sunday Call
I’ll never forget the Sunday I got a call from my assistant principal. It’s one of those calls, one of those memories, forever etched into my lived experience as a high school principal. My amazing assistant
principal called to let me know that we were on the verge of a potential disaster. What disaster? An online post from a student threatening violence with a gun. When? The next day at school.
So there I was, on a Sunday, facing my worst fear and something I vowed to prevent ever happening at my school. The shooting at Columbine High School changed my view of school leadership. I believe schools were a safe haven, and watching the events unfold
on the news forever changed how I felt about school being a safe haven, and with that, my priorities as a leader. I invested all my energy into culture and relationships. But there I was on a Sunday afternoon at home carrying the safety of my students
and staff in my next decisions and leadership actions. Time was of the essence and my team needed to move quickly.
How could we be in this position? As a school known for its positive school culture, relationships, and student-adult connections, what did we miss? Where did we go wrong? Is this a real threat? Or is someone just trying to get a reaction online? Real
or not, it required immediate action.
Thankfully, relationships were the reason I learned about this on a Sunday. Relationships were also the reason why we were able to prevent a potential tragedy. And relationships were the reason we ultimately were able to wrap multiple supports around
a hurting student.
This situation started when a student saw the post online and was alarmed by the content. That same student reached out to a teacher. That teacher reached out to the assistant principal. The assistant principal then called me. I then called our school
resource officer who coordinated a police home visit. That visit confirmed we had an armed, distraught student. The police removed the weapons and were able to get the student some much-needed mental and emotional support. That’s the short version.
The longer version: crisis averted, but how?
Relying on Relationships
Relationships. Strong student and adult relationships.
If the student who saw the threatening post didn’t have a relationship with the teacher, then I might be telling a different story today. Same thing if the teacher and assistant principal didn’t have a relationship, or if the same relationship
didn’t exist with our community partners and local police officers. Thankfully, because we all stressed and valued connections, belonging, strong student-adult relationships, and positive school culture, we were able to avert a crisis, barely.
Since Columbine, it’s frightening to think about the hundreds of school shootings across our country. What’s even scarier is the number of times students and adults in our schools across the country have prevented thousands, not hundreds,
of similar violent events. The story I shared above is not unique; it’s common practice. School leaders could share countless similar stories, at any and all grade levels, in any and all communities. No school community is immune or
invulnerable to these tragedies, regardless of the preventative measures put in place.
More Adults, More Relationships
Since our society seems to continue to believe that our schools are responsible for not just educating our youth, but also for their mental,
emotional, physical, and social health, then why aren’t our schools staffed with the adults to meet those expectations? Why would we knowingly give one counselor a caseload of 450+ students? Or one principal a caseload of 1,000+
students? Or one teacher with more than 20 students in a classroom?
This has been the model for too long and our state is slowly working to change it. The Legislature passed HB 1664 this year to update the prototypical model for support positions like counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.
This needed change will take time.
We need to keep talking about why we are applying old logic and staffing models to other roles in our system. Society has changed exponentially over the past two decades, but the education system hasn’t changed with it. We are using
pretty much the same old staffing models and traditional roles designed for yesterday’s students to try to address the complex needs of our students today. And it’s not working.
We can all name a special adult (whether a teacher, coach, or principal) who made a difference in our lives. We don’t often recite a lesson or unit that made a difference for us, but we can always speak to the relationship and how this
special person made us feel. These special adults made us feel welcome and encouraged. They gave us a sense of belonging and made us feel smart, capable, and with promise. They gave us support, unconditional love, and hope. They are a
big reason why we are where we are today.
Relationships can save lives.
It’s time we adequately fund healthy, safe, and proactive student-adult ratios for our schools. Many of our schools are like small cities, so let’s build and staff them to reflect those needs with mental health professionals, medical
clinics, counselors, therapists, social workers, hope coordinators, graduation specialists, nutrition experts, etc. Let’s put more caring adults, including more principals, in the life of every student right now.
Our youth are carrying two-plus years of pandemic trauma. The more adults we can get into schools, the more opportunities for every student to find a relationship. And who knows if that’s the relationship that will prevent bullying,
someone from dropping out, a suicide, or even a school shooting?