The city of Newtown, CT is still coping with the tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. The shooting, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults, thrusting the community into the middle of ongoing debates over both school shootings and gun control at large.
Dr. Joseph V. Erardi, Jr. has been superintendent of Newtown Public Schools since 2014. During that time, he's overseen not only efforts to make schools more secure physically, but to implement educational strategies that assist those traumatized and prevent further tragedies. Social-emotional learning — which focuses on self-awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management, relationship skills, and social awareness — is chief among them. In partnership with the Avielle Foundation, headed by neuroscientist Jeremy Richman, whose daughter Avielle was among the Sandy Hook victims, the district is addressing SEL via the Spark initiative.
"We made a very conscious decision that if this was going to work, it's not going to work if it just came from the superintendent, not going to work if it just came from the Spark initiative or the Avielle Foundation," Erardi said during a panel at this year's SXSWedu conference, noting that the district spent six months building buy-in with teachers via professional development and decisions around what to take off the table to build capacity.
Education Dive caught up with Erardi to find out more about the recovery process, the importance of SEL, and his advice for other districts that face tragedy.
EDUCATION DIVE: There’s a perception among the general public that once the media stops covering something, that everything is kind of recovered. But Newtown is still very much in recovery. What’s the process been like since you arrived?
JOSEPH ERARDI: The process, quite honestly, has been ongoing. It’s a very delicate recovery and rebuild. There are issues and events that take place in Newtown that we do our absolute best to handle quietly, without the media and the press to be involved. But what I can tell you is that my longterm hope is that we’re able to offer this country a model of a community that was taken to its knees and how one educator, one community member, one elected official, one administrator — individually and collectively — made a difference for students, because the rebuild is enormous. The process is very, very delicate.
Two years into it on my end, my commitment to the most impacted families hasn’t wavered in that whatever I can do to offer them a better tomorrow than today, I do my absolute best. In some cases, they are quiet decisions. In some cases, they’re unpopular decisions. But that’s been an ongoing focus.
In the swirl of the recovery, it’s easy to lose sight of the core of teaching and learning and instruction. We’ve made a very powerful statement that our rebuild and our climate and our culture in our schools is being driven by outstanding teaching and learning. Thus, Newtown students — although many of them are still traumatized students — are prepared for the work world, for higher education. There are no easy days in Newtown, but from my lens, every day is a great day. It’s difficult work, but it’s work that has extraordinary benefit, knowing that you’re a small part of a community trying to pick itself back up.
How can a focus on SEL both help to prevent these tragedies and also help in the aftermath?
ERARDI: From the recovery perspective, it’s a community that remains very tenuous with any and all safety issues — and they should — whether it’s hardening the building, armed or unarmed officers, shatter-proofing glass, brain health, complex students, complex adults, complex community members. There’s just a different level of sensitivity, and there will be that level for years and years to come. I think part of the piece that this brings forward is that it’s an all-in model. So for that nervous father, that nervous mother, that nervous grandmother, or that nervous grandfather, we’re now able to say to that person, “Be a part of our work. Be a part of the bigger picture.” We put our head to bed when we realize that every student has the opportunity to be successful. That’s our daily conversation.
You make a difference one student at a time, and that’s what we do in Newtown. It’s hard work. It’s labor-intensive. But the SEL piece gives every student a voice, and it gives every staff member a better opportunity to assess that voice.
As far as physical security, what’s been done in Newtown schools?
ERARDI: What happened in Newtown post-tragedy, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, with federal programs, stood tall for Newtown and invested more than a few million dollars into the community. It’s my belief that we have perhaps one of the most intricate plans of school safety and security in the country. You understand why, but you can never talk about details of a plan.
What I can say to you is that when our security committee meets, we have some of the most trusted and greatest minds across this country, in some cases, fly into our security committee meetings. We’ve worked really hard on all aspects of our safety plan. We’ve worked in partnership with safety officials, we work in harmony with our police department and with the state police, and we’ve done everything we possibly could to be proactive and never to be reactive.
Attention around school shootings increased significantly after Columbine in 1999. Do you think the way the general consumer media covers these events sometimes hinders efforts to effectively address them?
ERARDI: Let me answer that question with an issue that happened about a year and a half ago. Our phone lines are monitored in a special way because we’re just that phone call that those hoaxers and those perpetrators like to make, whether it’s a bomb or whatever the call might be. In October 2014, about a year and a half ago, we had to evacuate the now-Sandy Hook Elementary School because of a bomb threat. And you get caught right in the middle of that, because there’s no question we had to evacuate. But the perpetrator who made that call, there you go: Somebody’s watching their TV saying, “Oh my gosh, look what I did today. Isn’t this terrific?”
What I did was I got a community forum that night to talk to parents, and I said to them, “I’d rather stand in front of you and tell you, ‘You know what? There was no actual [threat], however, here’s what we did and why.’”
That’s the push and pull that you’re in as a school leader. When the day is done, you do all that you can, and you kind of take the pressure from the media — and the media pressure in Newtown is relentless. They know more about me than my wife knows about me, I think. You take the media pressure and you put it in its own silo. You work in partnership with the media, but you never allow the media to influence best practice. Sometimes you make the difficult decision, not the easy decision.
What advice would you give to other districts if, God forbid, a similar tragedy were to happen?
ERARDI: What happened, sadly but unfortunately, is that there are districts that usually will dial me up after a tragedy. I just pray that this whole phenomenon of school shootings is somehow going to get behind us. But the advice that I give to school leaders that are going through something similar — the Newtown tragedy is unique to itself. It’s the most heinous crime ever committed in public schools. It was committed against 20 6-year-olds and six adults. But the advice that I give to folks is that, in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, make sure someone is taking care of you and make sure you’re doing your absolute best at taking care of the victims’ families and the staff surrounding the victims’ families.
Three years later, we have a number of students still in recovery and a number of staff members still in recovery, and a week later, I’ll tell them that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to take a very, very long time to recenter your district, so you’ve got to pace yourself in a way that you’re going to stay standing throughout the course of time.
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at how strong teacher induction programs are key to educator and student success.