Responding to Tragedy, Or Why I Needed to Process This Before Monday Morning

As this new day dawned, it was appropriately overcast and cold. With the news of the school shooting in Connecticut yesterday, I think we all feel overshadowed by the tragedy–grieving with and for those who lost someone, thankful that it wasn’t us, squeezing our people just a little bit tighter and a little bit longer, wondering at what goes on inside of someone to push them to such a senseless act. As the stories continued to come out, it hit closer and closer to home.

Because here’s the thing. I’m in the middle of my internship year as a school psychologist serving an elementary school and working on a preschool special education services team. That fact alone makes it more palpable. Then, I started this week at a neighboring school, responding alongside others to a crisis. And then there was the New York Times article about Sandy Hook Elementary School’s principal and school psychologist. They were in a meeting yesterday morning when the shooting began. They quickly left that meeting to respond–not thinking twice about what that might mean for them as individuals–and gave their lives in the process. The principal of Sandy Hook sounds like the female version of the principal with whom I currently work. The psychologist and I share not only the same role in a school but also the same first name.

I’ve been trained to run to a crisis when it happens. I’ve been trained in crisis response. I feel confident that my administrator and I would look at one another in that moment and instantly take action, working in tandem to respond and protect the children and staff of the school. But this school shooting has caused me to really examine my part of all of that.

On Wednesday of this week, I defended my dissertation. At the end of the meeting, one of my committee members handed me a copy of my abstract with a message on it. He congratulated me on a job well done and then said this, “I hope that you will continue as an advocate. We need you, my boys and me, to make the world better.”

That. Advocacy and making the world better. That is why I do what I do. And why I, too, would leave a meeting to respond…to protect…to do my part.

I am thankful that I work in a school alongside incredible administrators and very talented and capable faculty and staff members–all of whom deeply care for and are committed to the children in our care. On Monday morning, we will show up again, just as we do every day, to make the world better.

Earlier this week, someone asked me how to process/handle/deal with contact grief. She’d had a conversation with someone else who was working through some seriously heavy stuff and it left my person feeling the weight of it too. Perhaps you feel something similar regarding Sandy Hook Elementary School. I suggested a variety of things: yoga, meditation, a pedicure, reading or watching something with some humor, a glass of wine or beer, journaling, lingering over a cup of coffee, some kind of physical activity, whatever she felt like she needed to restore her soul. Because it looks different for all of us. Whatever that looks like for you, do it.

Others of you may be parents of children who will hear about the tragedy–because we live in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and the 24 hour news cycle. You also may be people who work in a school in some capacity. There are a variety of resources out there for how to talk to children and one another–as well as manage the media consumption. I’ve provided those links below. There is an additional link for things to say vs. not say to children in the wake of events such as these. Note that that link was written by a minister and may need to be adjusted somewhat depending on your religious context.

Many of us have joked about the end of the world on 12/21/12 based on the Mayan calendar. My understanding is that something has been lost in translation and that 12/21/12 is a point in time that marks the end of an era. My hope is that, on 12/22/12, the sun will rise on a new era where we work to love everyone unconditionally, where we will work to be peacemakers instead of own them, where we will be sensitive to those around us and respond accordingly, where we will serve, protect, and advocate, making the new era–indeed the world–a better one.

Links to Resources:

Talking with Children about Tragedy

Responsible Media Coverage of Crisis

Five Things NOT to Say and Five Things TO Say to Children Regarding Trauma/Crisis Events



Certain Unalienable Rights

The 10th Amendment to the Constitution was sort of a catch-all Amendment. It left anything not delegated to the federal government in the hands of individual states. As part of that, education was left to individual states, “which provide education as an entitlement: All children have a right to an education provided by the state within which they reside” (Merrell, Ervin, & Gimpel, 2006, p. 114). Education is also considered a property right and is covered under the 14th Amendment, which provides for equal protection as well as due process (states cannot deprive someone of life, liberty or property without due process of law) to all citizens.

In other words, education that is free and appropriate and promotes quality learning and a better quality of life is one of our unalienable rights–up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That’s why it was disturbing to read a couple of weeks ago about the controversy surrounding a bill that was recently passed by the NC Senate: the School Violence Prevention Act. It has not yet been signed into law, though Gov. Bev Perdue says she supports such measures.

This Act is an anti-bullying measure that puts school districts on alert and requires them to guard against harassment and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity–in addition to bullying based on race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, academic ability, physical appearance…the usual. 

The bill, if passed, would require all school districts to have a policy in place that outlines methods and strategies for protecting students…by December 31, 2009. 

This bill comes at a time when a similar bill regarding hate crimes is in Congress and states are legalizing same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the bill in NC warn that this bill, which protects children from being bullied (read: getting the shit beat out of them) in school, will set a “precedent for more sweeping gay-rights initiatives in NC–up to and including same-sex marriage” (Independent Weekly, May 13, 2009). 


We’re going to make the jump from protecting children in schools to same-sex marriage?

Receiving a free and appropriate education is not only an entitlement we have according to federal and state law, it is mandated by state law (ever heard of truancy and its consequences?). If we are going to require education, shouldn’t we also be responsible for ensuring all children are in a safe learning environment where they are able to focus on their education and not their anxiety about whether they are going to get jumped that day?

What ever happened to the notion that bullying was bad? That being picked on because of the color of your skin or your gender or your sexual orientation (which, by the way, is often not a choice any more than skin color and ethnicity are), was not a good thing? 

The idea that people would oppose a bill that protects children in favor of keeping same-sex marriage off the books is preposterous. 

P.S. Two people of the same sex cannot legally be married in NC currently. Why the push for making same-sex marriage illegal? Don’t we have more pressing things to deal with…like the budget? Like the fact that NC is one of the top states for health insurance monopolies? Like job loss? Like the Easleys? OK…maybe not the Easleys. 

My point is if we say everyone has the right to education…in order to better pursue life, liberty and happiness…why are people working vehemently to oppose protecting the people to whom that right is afforded?