Feature                                                    Pages 38-43


A Port in the Storm: School

Districts During Off-Campus


A veteran school communicator details how three Colorado systems filled essential roles in the aftermath of shootings and wildfires


Ever since the tragic school shootings inside Columbine High School in 1999, school staff across Colorado have been active in emergency response training. In fact, Colorado law requires all schools to have safety plans in place to ensure that we are prepared.

Many of us in central administration have implemented our districtwide plans in response to school-related incidents. More recently, though, school districts in Colorado have faced a new role as they became the hub of their communities in the aftermath of tragedies that did not take place on school grounds.

In summer 2012, Colorado experienced several tragedies that affected communities across the state. In my district, a gunman walked into a theater and killed 12 people and injured 58 others. Nearby, wildfires killed three and burned thousands of acres and hundreds of homes. Although the tragedies did not occur in schools, the impact was direct and required immediate and long-term responses and support for students, staff and entire communities.

As leader of communications, Georgia Duran played a central role in the days following the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo.
Aurora’s Five Phases
In the predawn hours of July 20, 2012, I was awakened by a slew of sirens. Granted, I live just a block from a police station, so hearing sirens is not out of the ordinary. However, on this particular night, the sirens kept going. Soon my superintendent called to inform me about a mass shooting at the nearby movie theater. Because the theater is located in the heart of our district, we knew it was likely that some of our staff and students would be affected.

Our district’s incident response team, formed in the period following Columbine, supported first responders on the scene. Our team had been trained through emergency simulations and actual school incidents, and we had developed deep relationships with key city agencies, including the police and fire departments. These relationships proved beneficial in supporting the community and communicating to district staff and families.

Because we knew this tragedy would have a long-term impact, we organized our response into five phases. In the first phase, during the first 72 hours after the tragedy, we offered one high school as a site for the police department to interview witnesses and another high school as an evacuation site for families who lived near the suspect’s booby-trapped apartment. We opened several schools for free counseling services. Our familiarity with social media, our automated messaging system and our close ties with local authorities helped us communicate swiftly and effectively.


A District’s Five-Phase Process

In the second phase, we prepared for the beginning of school, which was only three weeks following the incident. We focused on handling student, staff and family reactions to the tragedy. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan immediately reached out to our district. We also brought in national experts on crisis response, developed a crisis resource website and hired a crisis recovery coordinator.

We partnered with local mental health agencies to hold support meetings at our schools and district offices. We learned that families in the district were more willing to visit familiar schools than to attend support group meetings at unfamiliar sites.

For phase 3, which involved the first day of school, we placed psychologists and counselors on call for students and provided extra substitute teachers for staff. We also chose to discuss the tragedy directly with students. We developed talking points for teachers that acknowledged the tragedy and emphasized that staff members were available to support students.

We faced criticism about this because some staff members were concerned we would upset students. “I’m a chemistry teacher, so I was concerned about what the conversation would look like,” said teacher Alec Barron. “What I discovered was that my students appreciated that I brought up the tragedy. By having a genuine conversation with them, I built a rapport that usually takes weeks to develop.”

In phase 4, we provided ongoing support throughout the school year to students and teachers and focused on prevention with our community partners. In phase 5, we supported community partners and engaged our students in the creation of a commemoration event that preserved memories and restored what was important to the community. We also prepared to handle any resurgence of student stress and highlighted the importance of self-care for families and staff.

Other Episodes
We were not the only school system to deal with an event of this magnitude. Colleagues in two other Colorado districts faced similar challenges in providing support in response to devastating wildfires that tore through their communities.

During a wildfire in Fort Collins, Colo., in June 2012, the Poudre School District lent support to displaced families and staff.

Waldo Canyon fire. Colorado Springs School District 11 found itself directly involved in emergency response to tragic wildfires in 2012.

“When we learned about the Waldo Canyon fire, many people felt that the fire wouldn’t impact our school district because the geography and distance from the fire made it unlikely to reach us,” said Devra Ashby, the public information officer. “Not only did the fire move quickly due to high winds, but we also opened our schools as incident command centers, and we became active in providing resources, helping with fundraisers and providing general support.”

The district organized its response into three phases. The first lasted the duration of the live fire. The second phase focused on supporting families as they returned to their homes or found alternative living arrangements. The final phase focused on preparing buildings for the first day of school.

“Although no district property was lost, we had to deal with nearly 100 families and 20 staff members who lost homes and were now displaced,” Ashby said. “It was important for us to support staff and students who had lost their homes and their sense of security.”

The impact, however, did not end when school started. Instead, Ashby and her colleagues faced additional challenges when another fire broke out a year later and mudslides resulted. “This experience,” she added, “has reinforced how much people depend on our schools. Our school district has systemic methods for reaching families and staff. These established measures continue to be helpful for our community.”

High Park fire. The Poudre School District faced similar experiences when a wildfire broke out in June 2012 near Fort Collins, Colo., but with some key differences.

Community members raised money for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the fire.

“When we had practiced or implemented our crisis response in the past, we planned on having key positions in the organization filled,” said Director of Communications Danielle Clark. “Last summer, we were between superintendents, and I found myself deciding what support we would offer to our community. It was unexpected, and time moved quickly. The community needed our help now, and we simply had to respond.”

Poudre schools provided similar support to families and staff as Colorado Springs, and they also followed a three-phase approach.

“A key difference is that we found ourselves providing support to our rural community as well. We were helping to find shelter for farm animals and food for horses, cows and even goats,” Clark said. “We also focused on opening our schools so students could visit familiar places where they felt safe.”

Clark highlighted the importance of hiring a coordinator to handle the long-term effects of the tragedy, an approach we took in Aurora after the theater shooting.

Roles of Reassurance
In each of these tragedies, the school district acted as the hub of the community. Their experiences provide useful lessons and confirmed the critical role of school districts in offering community safety and support.

One lesson we learned in Aurora is the importance of talking with students about the tragedies. “Some staff and parents wanted us to shield students from the tragic news of the shooting,” said John L. Barry, who retired in June as Aurora’s superintendent. “But we realized that students would learn about it eventually. For example, one kindergartner learned about it from friends at a weekend swim class. Regardless, we provided parents with the opportunity to have their child opt out of the discussions.”

Another lesson we learned was how powerful social media can be during a crisis. In Colorado Springs, Ashby said, “we continually updated the community via our Twitter and Facebook pages, and we found that many families and staff relied on our updates.”

There’s a positive impact to providing personal messages to those affected. “In times of a crisis, having a school staff member contact families reassures them that the school district cares and is willing to go the extra mile to offer comfort and a sense of security,” Clark said.

Lastly, we learned the importance of supporting school district staff during tragedies. “Our teachers and support staff appreciated that we offered substitutes and directed them to the resources available from our employee assistance program,” said Francis Pombar, recovery coordinator in the Aurora Public Schools. “We tend to forget the importance of self-care and to support those who are supporting others.”

Despite the frequent criticism leveled at public education, many students and parents still see schools as familiar and safe places. From these tragedies, we learned that when parents are unsure about what to do in the midst of a crisis, they choose schools as gathering places for safety and support.

Georgia Duran is chief communication officer in the Aurora Public Schools in Aurora, Colo. E-mail: grduran@aps.k12.co.us


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