Special Section: Helping Students Overcome Trauma

Students have a lot on their minds these days that can interfere with their academic trajectory and social-emotional balance. Today’s world has ratcheted up the levels of trauma-related stress—from school shootings, student suicides, and automobile accidents to child abuse and homelessness. To figure out how to navigate this path, we turned to Elizabeth Brown, principal of Forest High School in Ocala, FL; Kim Greer, principal of Langley High School in McLean, VA; and Stephen Brock, PhD, professor and school psychology program coordinator at California State University in Sacramento and former school psychologist. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the roundtable discussion.

Savicky: What is your background in helping students overcome trauma?

Brown: I’m going to talk specifically to my years at Forest High School. I took over as principal about 40 days after an active shooter entered our campus. We did not have fatalities, but we had one student who had a major injury. The shooter survived the attack and is currently awaiting trial. In the year since then, we had one student suicide—unrelated to the shooting. So, those are the two major traumas that we are dealing with specifically in our school right now.

Greer: Thankfully, I’ve not had to deal with anything like that. I’ve been in education for 27 years. As a classroom teacher, I have dealt with kids who’ve experienced trauma such as death and divorce. I also had a student who was in my class after Hurricane Katrina. Because we are in the D.C. area, we’ve seen an influx of unaccompanied minors over the past few years, and all that goes along with those reunification efforts. I was also a classroom teacher during the D.C. sniper incident in [2002]. We’ve had a few traumas that were out of the ordinary, but we have plenty of the day-to-day traumas to deal with.

Brock: I was a school psychologist for 18 years. I helped to develop and [lead] the Lodi Unified School District’s School Crisis Response Team. The district’s a moderately sized K–12 district located in California’s Central Valley, so I addressed a broad range of traumatic experiences from natural disasters to human-caused assault and violence. Currently, I work as a professor and a school psychology program coordinator at California State University, Sacramento. I’ve also developed curriculum—called PREPaRE—that has been offered around the country and in many international locales.

Savicky: What types of strategies have you used to help assess students’ experiences with trauma?

Brown: In Marion County, we have a multidisciplinary team with four phases. Each of those phases addresses the students’ needs after a trauma at different levels, whether it’s homelessness—that’s one level—or a tragic accident—that’s a different level. If there are students who exhibit signs of trauma, but we are not sure what that trauma may be, there is a level for that. This particular program encompasses not only school personnel, but also district personnel. Our psychological team is a huge part of it. We have a tool that is called the BESS [Behavioral Emotional Screening System], which is a tool where students answer questions that signify their level of trauma. We rely very heavily on that tool, as well as the expertise of our school and school board personnel.

Greer: When we identify a student who is exhibiting effects of trauma, we have counselors who are assigned to specific students, so that would be the first contact. From there we have, in each of our high schools, either a full-time social worker and/or psychologist. That person would then be available to meet with the student on a case-by-case basis.

Brock: Assessments depend upon whether the trauma is an acute traumatic event or complex trauma, oftentimes referred to as “toxic stress.” With the acute traumatic event, the students are dealing with a traumatic event: It comes, it goes, and it’s over. We advocate for what we call “psychological triage”—a very systematic and explicit evaluation process, especially in schools where you have kids simultaneously exposed to the same event. It involves looking at the individual student’s physical and emotional proximity to the trauma. In other words, where were they when the event happened? Who did they know that might have been involved in it? We also acknowledge that what makes something traumatic is perception. You can have two students experience the exact same trauma in the exact same way, and they’re going to view it differently. With complex trauma, or toxic stress, it involves a lot more contact with mental health professionals, and it requires us to be attentive to trauma-​informed care, trauma-informed practices, trauma-informed schools.

Savicky: If the trauma is immediate, such as a school shooting or a suicide, what is your first action to address the crisis and help the students?

Brown: For the school shooting [at our school], the immediate action was to reunify the students with their parents. We then provided counseling for students and parents over the weekend—the shooting took place on a Friday. We established a place where they could all meet, and then there was a very specific way that we brought the students back to school on Monday, trying to remain positive. Obviously, the logistical piece of it was that our maintenance staff came in and took away any signs of the incident that would be visually traumatic for the students.

For the suicide, we found out overnight. We helped the students by having our crisis intervention team on campus the next morning and our guidance counselors available. We communicated the circumstances with the students, did what we could to dispel the rumors that were already on social media, and then let them know where they could find the counselors. If the students took advantage of the counseling services, we made sure that their parent was contacted, and they were invited to be a part of that counseling. At that point, our crisis intervention team and our guidance counselors broadened their horizons to also encompass the family members of students that were in crisis in the immediate aftermath.

Greer: My first step is to get in contact with our regional office, as well as our communication specialist for the school division, then we would reach out to the family of the impacted student to find out if we were allowed to share information. If that permission was granted, then I would give a specific statement to my staff and support staff before students arrive. Along with that, similar to what Elizabeth shared, we have a crisis intervention team at the division level. They would be mobilized to come into our building and to assist students and staff as necessary with processing through the trauma that they were experiencing as a result of the event.

Brock: I recommend the PREPaRE model. The PREPaRE acronym is sequential and hierarchical. The immediate response would involve first P, for “Prevent,” which—after an event has occurred—involves a lot of steps already mentioned, and minimizing exposure to the trauma. What makes that tricky today is social media. But in preventing exposure, evacuation and lockdown protocols can help. The next step is R, for “Reaffirm.” We need to reaffirm both safety and security, as well as the students’ perceptions of each. Before recovery can begin, not only must the danger be terminated, but students must believe that they are safe. After that comes “Evaluate.” That’s where we do the psychological triage that I referred to previously. The idea here is when it comes to helping kids cope with these events, one size does not fit all, so we need to figure out risk levels and then provide interventions.

The next three letters are the interventions: “PaR” stands for “Provide and Respond”—provide and respond to psychological needs. We provide interventions within a multitiered system of supports. The final E in the acronym isn’t part of the immediate response, but it does acknowledge that once the dust has settled, we need to “Examine” the efficacy of the intervention.

Savicky: Where did you find support for yourself and staff members during traumatic times?

Brown: I help provide support for my staff, but principals tend to be the ones who take care of themselves last. I find emotional support in the team that surrounds me. My team leads, guides, and mentors me every day. I’m also a member of NASSP’s Principal Recovery Network (www.nassp.org/prn). Through that network, I find information. For me, information and knowing that the students and staff are moving forward is the best support for me. For the staff members, we have an employee assistance program where they can receive free counseling. Our counselors also take advantage of the counseling.

The biggest benefit for our teachers is our psychological services department at the district level. They have been fabulous for us. As we approached the anniversary of the shooting, we had some staff members who just needed to talk and be heard. I think even our staff was somewhat shocked that the April anniversary rekindled feelings that they thought they had already moved past. So, that initial shock was there first, then they realized, “I need someone to talk through this with me.” Our psychological services department is highly trained, and literally within 20 minutes of a phone call they were on campus for our teachers. There were some teachers who were not ready to go back into the classroom; they were given time to heal before they returned. That was the best part of our support for our staff. For myself, I’m surrounded by outstanding people, people who are better educators than I ever thought about being, and they keep me grounded and they keep me moving forward through those moments.

Greer: As far as our teachers are concerned, similar to our students, the crisis intervention team is available to our teachers immediately following an event. But similar to Elizabeth’s district, our school division also offers an employee assistance program that is telephone-based. It covers a myriad of situations, but in the instance where they may find themselves in need of some psychological support as a result of a traumatic event, they would be able to provide resources, such as names of participating providers that would be able to assist them.

As far as I am concerned, for me it is about having the team in the building fully supported but also being able to maintain a sense of self for my own sanity—connecting with my family and friends, and my church group, as well as outside activities. I just make sure that I have balance within my own life so that I am able to take care of myself personally, while also handling the professional responsibilities and leading my school and school community.

Brock: If we don’t take care of ourselves, we are in no position to take care of our students. With the staff, I really encourage all principals to consider every single staff member. Two groups that I’ve found historically overlooked are custodians and the school-​employed mental health professionals. Think about the custodian who has to come in and clean up a mess. Today, there are companies that you can employ to do that—for which I would fully advocate.

All too often, as mental health professionals, we think we can take care of ourselves because we know what to do. But we don’t always practice what we preach. The school psychologists, counselors, and social workers, who by the nature of their duties in crisis response are vicariously traumatized because they are talking to and working with the most significantly traumatized, will hear stories that can scar them for life, so we need to be attentive to their needs. Many times, what kids need after a traumatizing event is returning to some semblance of normalcy, which means returning to school and being with their teachers and friends. But for their teachers to realize their caregiving potential, they need to be cared for first.

Savicky: If the trauma was more personal and long term—that is, child abuse or homelessness—what programs are available to those students?

Brown: In Marion County, we have a department that deals directly with our homeless students. In my high school, that department works very closely with my guidance office and with me, quite honestly, to ensure that our homeless students’ needs are being met. With child abuse, we have a very strict policy of contacting our Department of Children and Families, then contacting our district personnel. Whenever the child returns to school, we have part of that multidisciplinary team touching base, setting up ongoing counseling for the child, making the teachers aware, and then they obviously are part of our conversations in our collaborative meetings.

Greer: I’ll start with the child abuse and neglect because my answer is similar to Elizabeth’s. If our clinical team felt as though it were something that required additional resources beyond what the school could provide, they would refer the student to a liaison group that we have for the school division and then the community, where they would recommend that family for in-home therapy. Regarding the homeless students, based on federal law, they have the right to remain in our building, and the school division has a very robust program to ensure those students are able to remain in their current educational setting based on when the homelessness occurred. Along with that, our clinical team and counselors would continue to connect with that student.

Brock: In talking about long-term trauma, child abuse would be a classic example of complex trauma or toxic stress. The student who is exposed to trauma on an ongoing basis is seriously impacted. Child abuse is a good example that everybody can understand, but there are schools in our country where the majority of the student body is trauma-exposed regularly. That gets back to something I mentioned earlier: trauma-informed schools and trauma-informed practices. It begins with education, making sure staff development is provided on an ongoing basis to ensure that all educators understand traumatic stress and how it affects the brain and behavior. I have an example where I explain the difference between toxic stress and tolerable stress. The teacher, in a firm voice, says, “Stephen, sit down now,” which I would do a lot in a classroom. But if you’re the victim of child abuse and have experienced toxic stress, you might be hearing a signal or a cue telling you you’re about to be abused. You will react without thinking.

Savicky: What are some of the resources that other principals and school administrators can refer to in order to help their students?

Brown: Specific to active shooter incidents … the Principal Recovery Network through NASSP is an outstanding resource. We are in the process of building a toolkit that will be available to principals and school administrators in the moments and days immediately after an incident like that. We work very hard to touch base with principals [in schools] where this happens to let them know that we are there for them in that moment.

A nontangible resource—you can’t look it up on the internet, can’t order a book about it—is other administrators or principals who have experienced the same situation. Their voice of wisdom on the opposite side of it, the voice of wisdom coming from them going through the days and months thereafter, is the biggest resource that has been the most beneficial to me. Serving on the Principal Recovery Network, I’ve listened to the principals who have gone through trauma, and they are anywhere from six to seven years past the incident. Frank DeAngelis from Columbine High School is a member of it, and he’s over 20 years past it. Hearing their wisdom, hearing their insight, and being able to decipher what worked for their school community has been extremely beneficial for me.

Greer: I would just say that coming from a large school division that does have robust resources, I have the ability to pick up the phone and get resources at a moment’s notice, but I realize that that is the exception as opposed to the norm for most school principals.

Brock: There are a number of resources we can look to for more guidance on this topic. I like the National Resilience Institute (www.nationalresilienceinstitute.org). It provides some guidance on trauma-informed schools and trauma-informed practices. On the topic of suicide and dealing with suicide in particular, one thing I think all educators would find very helpful is a [publication] called After Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools, Second Edition. It’s particularly helpful for school administrators because it provides guidance on communicating with students and staff as well as school community members. And, of course, the PREPaRE curriculum.

Savicky: What strategies are employed to enable students to begin the healing process?

Brown: Over the summer I read a book called The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath. After reading that book, I felt that “moments” are what were going to heal our students. Our shooting happened right before they went home for the summer, and healing had started on the surface, but the underlying trauma and the underlying emotions had not yet been addressed. What I learned from that book is that people thrive on moments. Whenever you ask a high school student, “What was your best memory of high school?” the answer is very seldom “a math concept.” It’s always a moment, whether it was a moment created by a teacher or an event at the school.

We have used that book and that tool to implement elevated moments, which is now our school culture. We create elevated moments within our school day and school community that allow the students to remember that life is good. It may be something as simple as giving out emoji erasers on the first day of school or when the administrative team did a funky lip sync in the middle of lunch. It’s those things that remind them to laugh and give them that moment to remember. I will say right up front that this method is not steeped in research. What I do know is that it has been effective with our students. We are moving forward, and we have these elevated moments, and we have these times when the student body comes together and they show kindness, and they just are kids again. Again, there’s no research to prove that that works, but it’s worked for us.

Greer: For us, it’s about making sure that we have a true network of support for the students, and that begins with the teachers and sharing information with teachers regarding students who need additional support—just so those teachers are watching and alert if the students exhibit any signs of struggle or maybe something is just “off.” Along with that, we make sure if the student is in a prolonged trauma that we are looking at that student not only from a social-emotional need, but also an academic one. We enlist all of our resources and, if necessary, we evaluate that student for further screening to see if they are in need of additional supports.

Brock: Recovery is the norm. We expect people to be able to get over this. Long before there were school psychologists and counselors, people were dealing with trauma and moving forward with their lives. It’s not like it goes away; these are unalterable changes, but—and this isn’t universally true depending on the nature and magnitude of the stressor, you absolutely do sometimes need someone like me—for the majority of a student body, assuming the trauma is acute and the danger is past, we can expect them to move forward with their lives, to recover, and for effects on school adjustments and academic functioning to be temporary and not permanent alterations.

What this speaks to is resiliency, and while the population we deal with is vulnerable—arguably the most vulnerable—developmental maturity is a risk factor. The younger they are, the harder it is to cope with these events. But that said, most of our students have within their naturally occurring environments all the resources they need to help get over it.

So, one of the things that we advocate for, and what we consider to be the primary mental health crisis intervention, is the reestablishment of naturally occurring social supports. While we definitely watch everybody and monitor progress for everyone, we hope that kids emerge from the circumstance with a greater appreciation for, “Wow. My friends are really helpful,” or “Wow. My parents know a lot of stuff,” or “Wow. My teachers helped me get through a really difficult situation.”

Savicky: Do you have any final thoughts on helping students overcome trauma?

Brown: We are a little over a year past the first trauma of the active shooter; we are less than a year past the suicide of the student. I think my final thought would be what I have learned, as a principal, is that there is no time frame. Sitting and listening to other principals who have been through similar issues and are six years, 15 years, 20 years past the incident, everyone heals at their own pace. In our particular situation, our students are very resilient. Our teachers know what could have happened, so they have deeper thought processes of that particular day. For me, as a principal, my responsibility is to allow the openness for healing to take place in the time frame of the person who is healing. A student who is dealing with trauma cannot be time-stamped, and it is our responsibility as educators to remain open to their healing and support their healing.

Greer: It is important that we also be mindful of the students who are putting on the front that they’re OK, recognizing that they really may not be. Again, it just goes back to making sure that we as educators are building those relationships with students and we’re getting to know them on a personal level, then giving them that time and space to be who they are and to know that it’s a safe space to share if they are in need. Or to Elizabeth’s point, if additional time is needed, we’re available and we’re giving them that time and space to grieve and to move forward as necessary in their own time and in their own way.

Brock: First, schools are safe. That’s a hard thing for some people to hear after having experienced something as traumatic as a school shooting, but if you look overall across the country, schools are safe places. I can’t promise that there will never be a school-​associated crisis. I can’t guarantee that there will never be some sort of traumatizing circumstance affecting a school, but by and large this is the place where you can go and feel safe.

The second point is, with regard to the individual student who’s been traumatized, you want to think of the student as moving on, not moving on and getting over the trauma, but rather moving forward with the trauma. The traumatic experience represents an unalterable change. You’re quite literally never going to be the same again, but we can move forward with it. We can integrate it into our experience. It’s part of who we are. It shapes our life, and sometimes it can change our trajectories, but that doesn’t have to be bad or counterproductive.