Fit to Lead: May 2022
It’s the club no one wants to belong to. But for those who have become part of the Principal Recovery Network (PRN) following a shooting at their school, the group has provided invaluable support and resources during a time of stress and trauma that only school leaders who have experienced it can understand.
Since it was launched in 2019, the PRN has primarily focused on reaching out to principals whose schools are torn apart by gun violence. The network offers them support and guidance based on members’ experiences. While the group, which currently numbers about two dozen active members, has met virtually during the pandemic, it was finally able to meet in person in Washington, D.C., in March in conjunction with the NASSP Advocacy Conference. Even though PRN members gathered to conduct business—primarily working on “The Guide to Recovery,” a concise resource document for other leaders who experience gun violence in their schools—it’s clear they share a strong bond that others can’t fully understand, including their own family members.
“It’s even hard to explain to my wife why the group is so helpful,” says Greg Johnson, the principal of West Liberty-Salem High School in Salem, OH. “It’s almost cathartic to me to sit with all these people and to be able to share my story and see heads nodding. Not like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ but to see people say, ‘Yeah, I know what you’re talking about, I’ve been there.’”
Nothing Is Normal Afterward
Elizabeth Brown, the principal of Forest High School in Ocala, FL, recalls that she was “absolutely floundering” after taking over as principal shortly after a shooting there. “It seemed like every step that I would take, half the people would be pleased and half of them would be displeased. There was just a lot of drama. I joined the group to learn from others. When I called Greg, I said ‘I don’t really belong in this group,’ but I desperately needed to hear from others because I felt like I wasn’t serving my students well in that moment. And he said, ‘Of course you belong in this group.’” Johnson and Brown are now friends and the network’s co-facilitators.
Neither Johnson’s nor Brown’s school had fatalities in their shootings, but it’s become clear that survivors share the same trauma, and the aftermath is similar. “Tragedy is tragedy, and we’re all dealing with this,” says Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. DeAngelis was principal there during the mass shooting in 1999, and he’s still active in the PRN in retirement. “That’s where our help comes, in the aftermath of it. Because you’re not going to wake up some morning and everything’s going to be back to normal. That’s why we reach out.”
In the chaos immediately following a shooting, many people try to contact the principal, and not all have good intentions. As a result, a voicemail from a PRN member might go unreturned. DeAngelis has wide name recognition so he’s sometimes able to make contact and put the principal of a school where a shooting has occurred in touch with someone who might not have all the answers but has experienced something similar. Or a few days later, the principal might read an email that includes a copy of “The Guide to Recovery” and pick up some much-needed advice.
“One principal I talked to said the guide is the most useful tool she received,” says Brown. “She has it in a folder on her desk, and she pretty much picks it up daily to look at and think, ‘What did they all do in this situation, what did they do in that situation?’ It also has all of our contact information in it. I know the attitude of this group is: Call me night or day. We’ve got time to talk to you. We get it.”
Helping Educators Find the Help They Need
Even though the term is not widely loved, “self-care” is something the group spends considerable time discussing. Johnson uses an analogy from law enforcement. “If an officer is involved in a shooting, they’re required to go through debriefing and counseling. That doesn’t happen in education. It doesn’t happen to the administrators. It doesn’t happen to the teachers. You’re just told to be ready. Kids are coming back tomorrow or two days later or in a month or a year, but eventually kids are coming back. I think it’s very easy for the adults to say, ‘I’m going to worry about me later, I’m going to worry about kids now.’”
Kathleen Gombos, who took over at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, after the principal was murdered along with students and staff in the 2012 shooting, says that’s a common initial reaction to questions about how educators are taking care of themselves: Staff say there’s not enough time in the day to think about anything but their class full of kids. “The minute I got to Sandy Hook, my first thought was the kids, and getting the school back on track. But once I got there I realized, ‘Wow! This is going to be as much about adults as it is about children for a very long time.’ It turned out that admitting they couldn’t come back after the tragedy was probably the most courageous thing some teachers did.”
So naturally, self-care advice is included in “The Guide to Recovery.” A collection of practical thoughts in about five bulleted pages, the guide provides concise information to help school leaders in the immediate aftermath, and the next day, and the day after that, simply get through the crisis, Brown says. She adds that the group has been working on the guide, which will continue to be revised, since their first meeting in 2019 through a series of very raw and open discussions.
Johnson recalls that after there was a suicide in his building earlier this school year, someone sent him a 40-page guide for how to deal with such a tragedy. “I read it for five minutes. That was too overwhelming. We’re trying to make sure our guide is not overwhelming. It’s short enough, but it hits some of the major things, and it gets some wheels turning.”
Advocating for What Students Need
In addition to hands-on support for principals, the PRN advocates in a nonpartisan manner for ways to prevent future incidents, such as expanded mental health and counseling services in schools. “It seems like we naturally spend a lot of time on the reactive side of the conversation,” Johnson says, “but we recognize that the much more powerful arm of it is to be proactive and to meet with legislators. Because of what we’ve been through, we are heard. It gets us in the door, and we do have a voice.”
In the 23 years since Columbine, DeAngelis believes a lot has changed related to school safety, and that many things that the PRN and others have advocated for have indeed prevented more tragedies. “We can’t become helpless and hopeless,” he says. “I think that’s what this group represents.”
None of the PRN members expect an end to school shootings anytime soon. But they remain optimistic about helping principals and schools cope if something does happen. “A school shooting impacts the community and has more ripples than people realize,” Johnson says. “I pray that no community will experience that, but if they do, whether it’s the Principal Recovery Network or another avenue, I hope that principals in the future don’t feel like they’re alone in dealing with it. That was the feeling I had. And it was overwhelming.”
Dan Gursky is a freelance education writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.
Sidebar: Contact the PRN
For more information on the Principal Recovery Network,
email any of the principals featured in this article:
- Elizabeth Brown at [email protected]
- Frank DeAngelis at [email protected]
- Kathleen Gombos at [email protected]
- Greg Johnson at [email protected]