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A new effort led by principals shares best practices for handling school shootings

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

How does a school begin to recover after a violent tragedy? That's the question many in Uvalde, Texas, are asking following the shooting at Robb Elementary School that left 19 students and two teachers dead. Sadly, because there are so many schools in America that have experienced gun violence, former principals have formed a group called the Principal Recovery Network to share best practices in the aftermath of school shootings. The network was created in 2019, and today we've called one of the members of the group, George Roberts. He was the principal of Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, which experienced a shooting in 2012, and he's now a consulting administrator at Baltimore County Public Schools.

Mr. Roberts, welcome.

GEORGE ROBERTS: Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.

NADWORNY: Can you tell me a little bit about the incident that happened at Perry Hall High School when you were the principal? I understand it was the first day of school.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. Yes, it was the first day of school. It was in August of 2012, and the day started like any other. As the day progressed and we began our first lunch shift, a student was in the cafeteria eating lunch and, based on some event, decided to exit, proceeded to go to the bathroom, assemble a shotgun that he had learned to assemble and disassemble on YouTube at the time. And he reentered the cafeteria and fired one shot, which struck a student who was eating lunch. He did not know the student. And then as he was pulling the trigger the second time, a very brave teacher attacked the student and lifted the barrel of the shotgun as the second shot was being pulled, which, luckily, that shot did not hit any student. It went above a group of students, and then the student was apprehended by our school resource officer, who was also on duty.

NADWORNY: Was there someone that you turned to for help after that incident? I mean, how did you even know what to do next?

ROBERTS: To be very frank, I did not know what to do next. Luckily, approximately 1 to 2 days later, I did receive a call from a principal, a gentleman by the name of Mr. Bill Bond, who was the principal of Paducah High School in Kentucky, who experienced a school shooting in 1998. He said, you know, George, just make sure you focus on your students first. And certainly focus on yourself because a principal is only - can only be as good as a leader as they are in themselves. So they have to really make sure they've taken care of themselves and then from there, really go out and begin listening to the students first, talking to the kids in the building on top of asking for all the additional supports that would come from grief counselors, as well as some supports from the federal government in terms of finances to help bring on some additional social-emotional supports.

NADWORNY: And so that's kind of the idea behind the Principal Recovery Network - right? - him kind of passing on what he knew. Can you tell us how it works?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. And that really, as I just described, that really is what we decided after 2012, when I formed my relationship with Mr. Bond. And we continued that friendship, and then from that, I was fortunate to meet Mr. Frank DeAngelis, certainly, at that point, still the principal of Columbine High School. So we just created really this just informal hey, here's my number. If you have any questions or if you need any advice or you just want to talk, please feel free to call me. So that lasted for a few years after 2012. And then we were very fortunate to work with and partner with NASSP, the National Association of School - or Secondary School Principals, as a formal group of principals who reach out to principals who suffer active shooter scenarios. And our really primary mission and our driving force is to make connections with those principals and as someone who has gone through it - because obviously no one knows what that is like unless you go through it. And we saw that those numbers were increasingly getting higher, unfortunately, in our nation.

ROBERTS: So I assume your group will be reaching out to the principal of Robb Elementary School, Mandy Gutierrez. What kind of support do they need? What do you imagine that conversation to be like?

ROBERTS: Yeah. I would imagine it, that conversation, when it occurs, to really start with, how are you doing? So you've gone through this. We, as a network, have gone through this at varying levels. Again, Uvalde is really at the extreme, when you compare it to Columbine and Sandy Hook, with a number of students and adults and teachers who were murdered. So what we do is we try to make - have one of our principals who's gone through something similar make that connection. And it starts with, how are you? Are you able to begin the recovery process? What do you need? What type of support do you need as an individual to help you get to a point where you can help others?

And then beyond that, we then offer and begin to talk about maybe some of the short-term things that they can expect in terms of media. They can talk about the recovery process for the grief counselors that the school community will need, that the families of the victims will need. And then we kind of start looking out to mid and long range, six months to a year, to some of the things the principal might be able to expect in terms of when students return back to school.

This was an incident that occurred at the end of the school year. So in some many respects, that's a good thing because the children can go home and begin that healing process and then kind of the support can come to them. When these situations occur during the school year. We'll talk to the principal about, well, when are you going to reopen? And if and when you reopen, what might that look like? And then what might that year look like for you and your community? And then lastly, how do you begin to set your mind for the reality that this will happen again, and it will happen in another part of our country? And when that happens, how are you going to feel about that? How is your school community going to feel about that when you have to bring these emotions back up again?

NADWORNY: What are some of the things that people, like even school officials, principals, don't realize that schools have to deal with when a shooting occurs?

ROBERTS: Right. I think one thing that kind of the outside world doesn't think about is the survivors. And rightly so, the focus is on the victims. We as a nation, we - our hearts and as we say, our thoughts and our prayers and our hearts go out to the victims. They go out to the victims' families. And we kind of wrap our arms around the victims, which is what we should do, particularly when you have these number of mass fatalities or injuries. But I think, through that conversation, the next step of that is I think somewhere that we as a nation tend to kind of go, well, what about the survivors, right? What about the children who were in a lockdown situation one classroom over while the incident was being secured by law enforcement? How are we going to support them? Because they have to carry that weight and carry that moving forward for the remainder of their lives.

NADWORNY: That's George Roberts, the former high school principal in Baltimore and part of a group called the Principal Recovery Network, which works to share best practices in the aftermath of school shootings. Thank you so much for being with us.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.