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President's Corner                                           Page 46

 

Strength in Crisis 

 

BY PATRICIA E. NEUDECKER

 Neudecke

None of us can fully appreciate the impact of a crisis in our school district until we have lived through one. Only then can we understand that crisis response is about more than following procedures. It’s about a caring staff and community that, when put to the test, act out of genuine concern for their students.

Such was the case when a devastating event in our district brought everyone together. To this day, I marvel at what we learned about ourselves in that trying time, and it is for that reason that I share our story.

It was a Friday, and I was driving back from our state association meeting. My cell phone rang. It was our school board president, who also is a chief of police. After suggesting I pull off the road, he told me that after school, our high school assistant principal had picked up her children from their elementary school and was waiting at a stop light when her car was hit from the rear by a driver under the influence. Our assistant principal and her unborn child were killed instantly; her daughter, son and a school friend were hospitalized with injuries.

I sat in my car for a few minutes, said a quiet prayer, called our elementary school principal to break the news to her and then drove to the scene of the accident. It was the only thing I could think to do, and although the area was blocked off, I was able to spend time with our other high school assistant principal who had just driven by the scene.

The high school administrative team and I stayed at the school that night to call each of the 150 staff members. I also prepared a list of all the things we needed to do over the next days. The crisis affected more than our two schools; it touched our entire community.

The next day, we reached out to our assistant principal’s family, sharing our grief and sorrow, offering comfort and support. We prepared communications for our school families and coordinated media requests.

On Sunday, we called our extended crisis team together to plan for the upcoming days — a period filled with grief counseling, memorials and an effort to move forward for both schools.

The staff coordinated a memorial area on school grounds for the hundreds of flowers, cards and mementos that had been placed at the accident scene. School and community groups created memorial funds. Staff consoled students and each other. Schools from across the state offered assistance. Area clergy of all denominations offered their support, and families from across the district offered their help.

A special visitation was scheduled for school staff and students. For many of our students, this was the first experience with a visitation or funeral. The local funeral home was kind enough to send staff to the high school to help prepare students for the services. The bereaved family even visited with us and our students in what turned out to be our start of healing.

The assistant principal’s son and friend recovered, but sadly, her daughter died a few days after the accident. Years have passed, but the memories of this crisis in our district are vivid and linger to this day.

From a management perspective, we were prepared, our crisis plans were in place. Yet it was the people in our school district and in our community who helped us through that time — with kindness, compassion and grace.

Those attributes are in all of us, and it is our responsibility to model those characteristics and create cultures in which children learn the very best, even in the worst of times.

Patricia Neudecker is AASA president for 2011-12. E-mail: Pat.Neudecker@oasd.k12.wi.us
 

 

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