In the aftermath of an active violence incident in a school, there are always outside groups and individuals that show up with offers of help. Sadly, sometimes they are only looking to profit off others’ tragedy.
However, others truly do offer help, often at little or no charge. One of these is the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which has provided assistance in New York City after 9/11, at Chardon High School in Ohio and at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut after school shootings, and to many other schools that have suffered acts of violence or that may just be looking to prevent one.
Now in its permanent location at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, the Center’s physical location previously followed the career path of its founder, Dr. David Schonfeld, starting in the late 1980s when Schonfeld was a fellowship trainee in Baltimore. Although the staff has never been large, and the Center relies on professional advisory board members who volunteer their time and funding from outside sources, it fields hundreds of requests for crisis response, advocacy, research, education and training every year.
The Center website divides its resources into two sections: I Need Help Now and Help Me Prepare. Schools that need immediate help can call a 24/7 toll-free number, (877) 536-2722 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to request both short-term and long-term technical assistance and consultation that is offered at no cost; the section also contains links to useful materials related to topics such as the death of a loved one, coping with a suicide, talking to students about terrorism and psychological first aid. Under Help Me Prepare, schools can find links to guidelines on subjects such as responding to the death of a member of the school community, whether from suicide or other causes, and supporting children whose family member died in a line of duty death in the police or military. The Center also sponsors the related website of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students. The Coalition is comprised of more than 30 national professional organizations representing teachers, administrators, mental health and support staff, and related professionals. The site offers a variety of video-based teaching modules that are freely available.
“We are contacted at least weekly by schools and communities, and we respond quickly,” Schonfeld says. “Sometimes they’re just looking for advice or a way to connect with resources, and we try to turn those around quickly within 24 hours, usually within a few hours. Most of them also want to talk to someone on the phone who will help them figure out what to do.”
Although incidents on the scale of Sandy Hook are fortunately few, many schools need assistance with smaller-scale events such as a student suicide, a teacher battling cancer or a shooting in the nearby community. Schonfeld says the Center talks school administrators, school mental health professionals and other school professionals through what they might want to do, helps them connect with resources in their area and provides model language and materials for use with students, parents and the community tailored to the specific incident.
“For example, after Sandy Hook we were asked to write something that could be used by teachers in schools throughout the state to support conversations with students on Monday morning. We had developed similar materials for other school crisis situations that we could draw from quickly. We provided scripts that teachers could paraphrase, as well as guidelines on what they might hope to address in these conversations to help them bring up the topic, address students’ questions and concerns, and help them cope with their reactions to the event. Whenever we develop such materials, we work with the school to customize them even further, including information specific to their school or school system,” he says.
Schonfeld and other Center professionals also have provided on-site consultation to schools that have suffered major active violence events, often making multiple visits over periods of five years or longer: “Thanks to the funding we receive from the New York Life Foundation, we’ve been able to offer on-site consultation in the aftermath of major crisis events at no charge, including covering our own travel expenses. Making site visits allows us to offer consultation and training and professional development for the entire school staff, including SROs and school security. Sometimes we include community health providers as well.”
He often finds the Center’s services hard to explain because they are so broad-based, adding “We do what we feel is needed and what the school is looking for rather than going in with something that is already designed. We stay with the school through the recovery process but we try to stay behind the scene. I don’t think it’s optimal for experts from outside to come in for a few days at a time and displace the experts who are there all the time. Instead, we aim to build the school and local community’s capacity for a sustained response — and remain as partners as questions arise.”
In addition to site visits in the aftermath of violence, Schonfeld has provided nearly 1,000 trainings and presentations on supporting children after crisis and loss. The Center has assisted schools with being proactive about policy development and event planning.
“Every school has a crisis at one level or another. The information we provide and the training we offer is really to help school professionals be better prepared to help students in distress. We need to be able to support kids in their emotional and psychological development, which is so important to their learning,” Schonfeld says. “Although the major events we respond to stand out for most people, we spend much more time doing preparedness and general training.”