I was the Principal of the High School in Montourville, PA when TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island in July of 1996. The recent tragedy in Connecticut, like the other school tragedies we witness always brings up thoughts of not just the disaster itself, but the tragedy that follows such a disaster. In 1996, our school lost 16 students and 5 adults. In the weeks and months that followed, some of the following events happened that no school can possibly prepare for and usually have to “make it up” as they go along. Some suggestions for managing this are included.
1. The medical examiner will have to positively identify every victim. The parents won’t get to see their child again, so dental records and DNA samples will be required. Think about what it would have been like to be at the firehouse last Friday in Connecticut when the parents heard the news about their child.
2. Gifts and money (there were thousands of teddy bears alone) will come from all over the world- a quilt from a Girl’s private school in Calcutta, hand made cards from children in Ghana, a hand made mural from children at a school in Darwin, Australia… the gifts will just keep coming in. One day the school will have to decide something that will cause great consternation- the decision to “focus our attention on the living”. No one will know what to do with all of the gifts. Do you make a permanent memorial? Do we store them? We can’t rightly dispose of them? What do we do? The day will come when the school- not the families, will have no choice but to move on, and there will be great arguments about the timetable for this adjustment… the Superintendent will be severely judged for the decision to move on.
3. The funerals will be heartbreaking enough… but the cemeteries will present a surreal scene of incalculable grief. There will be Xmas trees with lights on the tree being run by a generator and presents under the tree(because the child will need something to play with in heaven) and stockings hung on gravestones and Christmas carols playing by some electronic device. Some people will have life-size cut-outs of their child standing near the Xmas tree in the house. I saw this. It was devastating and remains that way today for me.
4. Siblings will come to be very angry at their parents who rightly will never get past the death of a child leaving the sibling feeling less-loved and neglected.
5. Many families will start a fund in their childs name with all good intentions. However, huge sums of money will come from every corner of the globe and there will be endless evening meetings trying to reach some agreement about what to do with all the money with now angry and still grieving parents.
6. Eventually, another disaster will occur as happened with us where I was talking with Wolf Blitzer one day and all the satellite uplink trucks and black limos carrying TV news celebrities disappeared the next when a hand-made nail bomb went off at the Atlanta Olympics. Suddenly, we did not exist anymore from a news standpoint… which should have been, on the surface, good news, but we were then really on our own.
These are just some of the awful things that will occur as this aftermath unfolds. Here are a few things, arrived at improvisationally, that worked for us…
1. Volunteers will come from everywhere… don’t turn them away… you help them and yourself if you can invent something for them to do where no job exists… people need to be near other people in a tragedy. We had guidance counselors and teachers and ministers and soldiers, and just plain moms, dads, grandparents, and students showing up from everywhere.We gave everyone something to do… some senior citizens were making tape balls to help hang up emails…
2. Religious people from all beliefs will come… leave a place of reflection for all faiths… for us The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most helpful as they organized and hung up every email on the wall and took care of daily the thousands of live plants and flowers that were sent to our school from everywhere as will happen in Newtown. Exclude no one… allow all faiths to leave literature in a quiet and respectful place. Stay in touch with the local ministerum- made up usually of all clergy in the town… they can help spread messages to their respective flocks and help in a variety of ways.
3. Hire a firm which deals with establishing trust funds and major giving. This will involve long hours and school officials have schools to run and their whole lives will be taken up with things for which they have no expertise… these people need to be giving their best to the living.These meetings willbe extremely rancorous because the parents aren’t ready for the logical thinking required of such meetings.
4. School must respect the mental-health professionals and grief counselors, but someone must be in charge of these people and the Superintendent and administrators must never forget that they are in charge of the building and not the mental health professionals. Madam Superintendent- try not to turnover the control of the building to people who lack that kind of expertise the same as you lack the expertise to provide counseling. It is not quite an exaggeration from my experience to say that sometimes the comfort dogs that were brought in often provided more relief instantly to grieving people.
5. School Board members will have to be reminded that they are just citizens like everyone else unless meeting as a body and voting to to something as a group. Individual Board members will enter the school each with his or her own agenda about how things should be run… a strong superintendent has to keep control of this or chaos will occur with everyone giving conflicting directions and coming up with creative but conflicting ideas- individual board members must take orders not give them in this setting.
6. Kids are a lot more resilient than we think… at one point in the Fall, I had a group of students say… “this isn’t another special program for us poor downtrodden Montoursville students is it? In other words, they were ready to move on even though the adults wanted to “help” them yet a little more… talk to students to find out when they have had enough “help”- they always know.
7. The adults will deny that they need counseling thinking only kids need help from professionals. Make teachers take a week’s vacation using substitute teachers in some organized way… they have to get away for a while whether they admit it or not… I still cry at all of these tragedies because of the thoughts that come back to me. I was the tough guy who was supposed to be in charge… pay attention to the needs of the grownups- we did not do that enough.
These are just some thoughts from someone who had to deal with the aftermath of disaster… not all of the talking heads on TV know what they are talking about. They never had to deal with such a thing.