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Feature                                                       Pages 32-35

     

Dealing With the Unexpected

The theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., showed the boundaries of the school district don’t limit the parameters of the superintendency

 Barry Duran
Georgia Durán, chief communiation officer of the Aurora, Colo., schools, and John Barry, former superintendent, deployed an incident response team folloing the mass shootings inside an Aurora movie theater.
BY JOHN L. BARRY

It was not my plan to become a superintendent. After a 30-year career in the military, I had retired and accepted a vice presidency with an international corporation when I had received a letter that changed my future. It was an invitation to participate in the Broad Superintendents Academy, a program designed to better prepare leaders in all career fields to effectively lead the most challenging school districts in the country.

Although my children and I had gone through the public education system, I really had no idea what a superintendent did. The Broad Academy changed this quickly, as I learned from some of the best teachers, principals and superintendents nationwide. I also realized how the leadership skills I gained as an Air Force general would allow me to move from helping to defend this nation to helping to defend the right of every child to learn.

In 2006, the Aurora Public Schools board of education entrusted me to serve as superintendent. This Colorado district is one of the most diverse in the state. Its 40,000 students come from more than 130 countries and speak more than 100 languages.

Unexpected Positives
One of the first surprises I experienced as a superintendent was the similarity between the way staff in the military and our educators and students value diversity. If you ask students what they like about their schools, one of the first things they’ll share is how much they learn from each other. One Aurora student had this to say: “You can be studying something in a class, and you’ll have an expert sitting next to you. Whether it’s Guam, Guatemala or Greece, you get to hear global experiences every day in class.”

The superintendency surprised me in another way. There is a lot of public criticism of education in the United States. From the outside, I wondered about the men and women who educate our nation’s children. What I found is that Aurora has some of the most dedicated, intelligent and talented people working in its district. I would argue they are second to none and rival the best in any organization, whether military, corporate or education. The district’s staff chooses to work in the Aurora schools to accelerate student achievement because they care about students and welcome the experiences that exist in a diverse, high-poverty and multilingual district.

Because of the reality of the world today, it is a sad commentary that educators also must have security and emergency response skills.

Unexpected Developments
On July 20, 2012, at 1:15 a.m., my ringing phone woke me up. I had many calls at strange hours while in the military, but this was unusual as a superintendent. The district’s chief operations officer, Anthony Sturges, a graduate of Aurora schools and now the commander of the Aurora Public Schools’ incident response team, informed me that because of a shooting at a local movie theater, our community partners needed help opening a nearby high school for police and witnesses to gather. I immediately agreed to this and to any other support that our community might need.

The reality of the situation quickly set in. I had flashbacks of being in the Pentagon on 9/11. I was soon on the phone with my chief communication officer, Georgia Durán (who already was awake). She also is on the incident response team and lives just a block from the theater and had been hearing sirens and helicopters for almost an hour. As we discussed outreach to the community, I kept in mind what I knew from experience. In the aftermath of a tragedy, most of the initial information we received would be inaccurate, so we focused on keeping our messages basic.

Although this was not a school shooting, I was certain it would affect our schools because the theater is located in the heart of our district. The chances were high that district students and staff might have been there.

Because of my military experience, I knew a full-scale emergency could consume a community and put a halt to normal activities. I also immediately knew this tragedy would develop into an event that would affect our city, state and nation. If we did not handle it appropriately, the event had the potential to interfere with our primary duty of accelerating student achievement.

This was going to be a long day and I made plans to assemble our district incident response team, which had been trained through emergency simulations and actual school incidents over the past six years. As the phone calls started coming in, our team played a major support role for the first responders on the scene.

Once we convened, we learned another one of our schools was directly affected by the tragedy. We had to evacuate and close the school because it was located across the street from the suspect’s apartment. We also opened another one of our high schools to the Red Cross as an evacuation place for families who were being displaced. In addition, we made several other schools available for free counseling services. Aurora’s staff unequivocally met unexpected challenges — and not only during a terrible tragedy.

Healing a Community
As we traced the impact of the shooting on our school system, we learned more sad news. Nearly 200 Aurora Public Schools students and staff members were directly affected by the shooting. Several were at the theater and sustained physical injuries. Others who were there bear different scars.

Among those killed was former Gateway High School student Alexander “A.J.” Boik. His fiancée, also a Gateway graduate, was with A.J. at the movie theater but survived. Everyone with whom you speak about A.J. shares how much he loved life and made everyone around him feel better. A.J.’s death at age 18 was a tremendous loss for our community.

Gateway High School Principal William Hedges and his staff members demonstrated tremendous leadership and dedication to their students through a moving memorial for A.J., which they empowered students to organize. Hedges was at the school when witnesses first arrived, and he has been a vital part of the community healing process.

I am certain that Hedges and the entire incident response team were better able to be effective because they continually practice emergency response procedures.

Preparing for the Unexpected
When I began as superintendent, Aurora had an incident response system that needed a lot of work. Having a response team was not unusual in Colorado as a result of the tragic Columbine school shooting in 1999. Our district’s team originally was composed of 10 members, who would provide support to schools following minor incidents such as lockdowns due to police activity in the neighborhood.

In 2006, we expanded our response team to include other key players to track our camera systems, GPS on buses, geographic information systems and health services, just to name a few. (A detailed disaster recovery overview and plan are available at http://communication.aurorak12.org/crisis.)

Some of these changes were vital to our July 2012 incident response. For example, with a GIS we were able to track our students and staff who were killed, wounded or at the theater. Then we identified their connections with our schools or district offices so we could provide structured and organized support.

All members of the incident response team have developed extensive checklists of critical tasks they must consider during a crisis. To ensure we were prepared, we practiced each year with first responders, staff from other school districts and the city’s office of emergency management. During an incident, we convened in a central command center and communicated through webinars, conference calls and in person.

Even with the training, we learned from each incident. We followed each response with a “hotwash” — where we debriefed what went well and what we could do better.

Some may ask why this work is important, especially to prepare for a crisis outside of our schools. The bottom line is that we did this work for our students. I’d like to say that our top priority was learning, but in today’s world, sadly, this is not the case. Our top priority was student safety because students who do not feel safe will not be able to learn.

A tragedy — whether it takes place on school grounds or not — raises other issues for students. So it is vital we not only have strong response practices in place, but we also must have strong mental health, social and emotional supports to keep students safe, strong and engaged.

A Final Thought
Despite the unexpected surprises, tragedies and complexities of the superintendency, it was an honor to serve in this role. When I asked students who my boss is, they threw out many ideas. When I told them they were my bosses because we were here on their behalf, their eyes filled with wonder and surprise.

One student had the best retort a few years ago when he asked: “So are we really your bosses?” After I assured him this was true, he gave me my most pleasant assignment ever: “Then go get us some ice cream!”

We also must look for the good and joy in people to overcome the challenges we face as school leaders.

John Barry, who retired in June as superintendent in Aurora, Colo., is the CEO of Vista Quest, a national consulting firm in Aurora. E-mail: vista.quest@earthlink.net

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