PARKLAND, Fla. — Following school shootings like the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, administrators reach out to former Columbine High principal Frank DeAngelis as there is no book to teach what he learned after gunmen killed 12 of his students and a teacher in 1999.
There should be no balloons at Stoneman Douglas’ welcome back ceremony Wednesday, he told the school’s administrators — some popped at Columbine’s, sending students diving for cover. Have substitutes onsite in case teachers need time to recompose themselves. Change the sound of the fire alarm, which got pulled both at Columbine and Stoneman Douglas during the shootings, or it will cause some to panic.
DeAngelis, who has spoken to Stoneman Douglas’ principal, says everyone must understand the school’s staff and students will never return to what they were before the shooting – they must “redefine normal.”
“It really is a marathon and not a sprint. There are going to be days when everything seems to be getting back to where it might have been prior but then something happens to hinder the healing process. One of things people asked me right after Columbine is ‘When is it going to be back to normal?’ I said it never really gets back to normal,” DeAngelis told The Associated Press in a phone interview this week from his Colorado home.
Stoneman Douglas’ 3,200 students are scheduled to return Wednesday, exactly two weeks after authorities say 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz opened fire just before school ended on Valentine’s Day, killing 14 students and three staff members. He is charged with 17 counts of murder and could face the death penalty. His lawyers say he has admitted the killings and would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
Broward County school officials say they will have counsellors at Stoneman Douglas indefinitely to help students and staff. Extra armed security will also be on campus through the end of the school year.
Megan Faberman, an 18-year-old senior who plans to study psychiatric neuroscience at the University of Central Florida, said at a recent rally outside Stoneman Douglas that she and her friends are going to walk “arm in arm into the school” on Wednesday to defy Cruz.
“We are not going to let him win,” she said.
At Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 people in 2007, teachers and students were given “the greatest flexibility possible” for determining how they wanted to move forward that semester, spokesman Mark Owczarski said. Students were allowed to finish courses without additional grades, take a pass or fail grade or complete their courses in another semester. He said they also deployed numerous counsellors on campus, who would wear purple armbands so they were easily identifiable in case someone needed “support at a moment’s notice.”
For DeAngelis, who retired in 2014, understanding that different students and teachers were in different states emotionally after the shooting was difficult.
“Some people needed to constantly talk about the experience and their feelings and where they are at any particular day and any particular moment. 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. And then you had those people in between. For everyone, it is a challenge,” he said.
He said administrators and teachers need to recognize subtle signs of trauma among their colleagues.
“These teachers are there to help the kids, but a lot of times they are putting on a strong front but they are hurting, too,” he said. “It is important for administrators to keep an eye on their teachers and the teachers need to help each other.”
He said unexpected issues will arise. Because many of the police officers who stormed Columbine to confront the two shooters wore camouflage, students were banned from wearing camouflage clothing because it disturbed others. History teachers had to be careful when showing videos about war as seeing and hearing gunfire re-traumatized students.
He said Stoneman Douglas administrators will have to decide how to deal with spring rituals like prom and graduation, as those will create strong feelings of loss.
Survivors of school shootings live differently than survivors of other tragedies, he said. Others can choose whether they want to revisit the site of their anguish, but for students and teachers, that usually isn’t an option. Stoneman Douglas students and staff will be reminded of their loss every school day, some of them for years, he said.
“When they walk down that hallway, it is going to bring them back to that day. They are going to see kids running out of that building. They are going to see kids with their hands up. They are going to hear gunshots. They are going to relive that day in and day out and that takes a toll on people,” he said.