Less than four hours after a 14-year-old boy had opened fire at Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., killing three classmates and wounding five others, the principal had to begin making difficult choices.
Should school resume the next day? And, if so, should students and staff members return so soon to the place where an unimaginable scene of horror had unfolded? Those were just the first of many weighty decisions for Bill Bond, who was Heath’s principal on Dec. 1, 1997, the day that Michael Carneal, a freshman at the high school in the western Kentucky town, showed up on campus heavily armed and began shooting at students who had gathered for a morning prayer group.
As the community of Newtown, Conn., continues to bury and mourn the 20 children, the principal, and five other staff members who were gunned down by an armed intruder at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week, other educators who’ve been through similarly horrific events said school leaders there face a series of wrenching decisions about how to pick up the pieces and move forward amid immeasurable loss and grief. As they make logistical decisions, they must delicately mind the trauma and emotions of their staff members, their students, parents, and themselves. Longer-term considerations about how to memorialize the victims also await.
Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, 47
Already, leaders in Newtown have decided to reopen school for Sandy Hook on Jan. 2, after the winter holidays, though students in the district’s six other schools returned Dec. 18. Sandy Hook students and staff members will not return for now to the campus in Newtown, which remains a massive crime scene. Their classes will resume in a borrowed middle school building in Monroe, a neighboring town. Donna Page, a retired former principal of Sandy Hook, has been selected to lead the school through the transition in place of Dawn Hochsprung, the beloved and energetic leader who was killed in the Dec. 14 massacre.
Recovery’s PathThe 5,500-student Newtown district has sought support and advice from officials in Jefferson County, Colo., where two student gunmen killed 12 of their classmates and one teacher at Columbine High School in April 1999 before killing themselves, said Connecticut’s state education commissioner Stefan Pryor. Though each community must make decisions based on its own needs, “recovery from these events follows a predictable path,” and there are lessons to be learned and resources to be drawn from others who have experienced similar tragedies, said Cathy Paine, a retired school psychologist who leads an emergency assistance team for the National Association of School Psychologists.
One of the first decisions is when to return to school and where. “Timing the return to school is very important, especially with so many victims who have to be memorialized,” said Cynthia Stevenson, the superintendent in Jefferson County, Colo. “You have to allow for the time for families to go to these memorials.” Students at Columbine did not return to school for two weeks following the shooting, and when they did, they attended classes at another high school in the district, said Ms. Stevenson, who was the deputy superintendent at the time.
In Paducah, “for us, the answer was yes, we had to come back the next day,” said Mr. Bond, who retired from the school in 2000 after the last of the students wounded in the shootings graduated. “When I asked the shooter, ‘why did you do this?’ he said to me, ‘I want to be in control.’ If we had shut down school the next day, he would have been.”
Mr. Bond, who now advises districts and schools on safety issues as a specialist for the National Association for Secondary School Principals, said that decision was one of the best he made in the aftermath of the shooting tragedy. But it wouldn’t necessarily be the right choice in other school crisis scenarios, he said.
Each situation is unique, said Ms. Paine, but generally, getting students and staff members back to class and to a routine is good...