WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pointing across the room, Frank DeAngelis singles out Jake Heibel as he’s leaving.
“Take care. Please,” DeAngelis insists. “I’ve got an ear.”
DeAngelis, a former principal of Colorado’s Columbine High School, and Heibel, principal of Great Mills High School in Maryland, are part of a club of which no principal wants to be a member: They both led schools that experienced mass shootings.
The two were joined by a small group of school leaders Wednesday afternoon who are members of the National Association of Secondary School Principals' Principal Recovery Network, a formal support system and advocacy group launched last year by NASSP for administrators who have lived through gun violence in their schools.
“The principal must collect the broken pieces of the community and restore them whole,” Beverly Hutton, NASSP’s deputy executive director, said at the event. “It’s a very difficult and isolating position for any principal.”
But over the years, Hutton said, there have been enough school shootings to recognize the pattern that follows. Here are six things administrators shared while reflecting on their experiences.
A shooting can happen anywhere, but relationships make a difference
“If you were to tell me Columbine were to happen in Columbine, I would’ve said no,” DeAngelis said. But his "worst nightmare became a reality" on what DeAngelis remembers as a beautiful spring day in 1999, when two seniors killed 15 and injured 24 students and educators in the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, a small suburb in the Denver-metro area.
True to fact, a Secret Service report recently confirmed that school shooters have no standard profile and attacks can happen in schools or towns of any size.
But before, during and after school shootings, creating a culture that encourages students to reach out to trusted adults in the school building is pivotal to prevention, mitigation and healing, the panelist said.
Principal Greg Johnson pointed to his experience at West Liberty-Salem High School, when a student named Logan, who was shot and injured, and a school coach successfully deescalated an active shooter situation in 2017. “At that point, the shooter started to second guess what he was doing,“ Johnson said and, after the shooter turned the gun on himself, “Logan started to talk to him about putting the gun down and getting help.”
“We continue to look at safety as hardening schools, but don’t underestimate the importance of adults in school and having programs that can reach out,” DeAngelis added, saying he recalled looking at photos of the Columbine shooters when they were small children “in their soccer uniforms with missing teeth.”
“What happened between that period of time when they were young until they walked through those doors?" he said. "Did we miss something?”
Watch and listen closely to students’ needs
After Elizabeth Brown stepped in as principal a little more than a month after a 2018 shooting, on Columbine’s 19th anniversary, at Florida’s Forest High School, she said her first task was to meet with student leadership to gauge their needs and vision.
And after listening to concerns from his students, Johnson said his school added retrofitted egress windows and bullet-resistant film for glass entryways, as well as additional SROs and counselors to put the community at ease.
But staying in tune with the needs of students is not just hardening buildings — it also means training around trauma-informed practices and providing immediate and sustained mental health services.
Because Johnson was “very intentional” in listening to students, he was able to identify and eliminate what would have otherwise been unpredictable triggers, including balloons at homecoming or prom and the starting pistol at track meets.
But trauma-informed instruction wasn’t commonplace during the aftermath of Columbine, when teachers re-entered their classrooms with little understanding of how students would react. “[When] a social studies teacher played a video tape of World War I or II and there was a gunshot, kids went into panic mode,” DeAngelis recalled, noting even day-to-day instruction and behavior — like loudly slamming doors — had to change.
There is no deadline on healing, everyone processes differently
“We [cannot] assume what the healing process will be and the time frame for healing,” Brown said. And during that undetermined period of healing, everyone reacts differently, making the challenge all the more difficult.
“At a staff meeting three months after the shooting, I had 50% of my staff for which the shooting was the last thing they wanted me to bring up,” Johnson said. “Then I had others that needed to hear about it.”
There will also be teachers who are very open about the support they need and others who process the situation on their own, he said.
Brown recalled a minor incident lockdown that led to the resurfacing of “resonating triggers” among students and staff. “My perception of the level of healing of my students was completely wrong.”
In case of active shooter drills following an incident of gun violence, giving plentiful notice to students and parents, making clear it is a drill rather than a real incident, and excusing the absences of students who cannot handle reliving the trauma are all ways to facilitate the healing process.
Refine your messaging
Because some shootings have few or no fatalities, incidents and their impact can become trivialized and struggles discredited. But Johnson pointed out that “your response isn’t proportional to your level of tragedy.”
George Roberts, former principal of Perry Hall High School in Maryland, where a shooting occurred on the first day of school in 2012, said even though fatalities and injuries can vary, healing will be a “years-long process.”
“I was guilty on our first day back” Johnson said, “for praising our students for being so strong and so resilient and so tough.” Over time, he said, he had to learn to change his message to one that didn’t conflate resilience with not asking for help.
Prepare for turnover and difficult decisions
“If you are a survivor of 9/11, you can decide to not go back to that [New York City] site,” DeAngelis said. But teachers and other school staff must return to the building of their trauma. “We all decided to stay together with our kids until our freshman class graduated in 2002.”
After that, according to DeAngelis, Columbine High School saw an approximately 50% staff turnover rate.
In some cases, teachers may need days off and could benefit from “pools of substitute teachers” who can step in. But it could become a fine and difficult line to walk if the same teacher is consistently triggered, DeAngelis said. “That’s when you need to have the conversation of: ‘Would a placement in a different school be better for you and the kids?'"
Principals must care for themselves consistently
For some principals, it can take years before realizing their need for self-care. Educators are trained to prioritize others first, and, particularly in the aftermath of a shooting, this can hurt administrators rather than be an asset.
“When I called Ty Thompson from Parkland,” DeAngelis said, “I said, ‘Ty I know what you’re feeling.’” Seeking and offering that support should never be a one-time phone call. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
For Johnson, being open about the struggles he faced during his recovery process and the help he was seeking connected him to his community. “I think it broke down walls,” he said.