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Teaching Through Tragedy: How Teachers and Schools Respond to Crisis

The impact of a tragic event is felt beyond the immediate sphere of those directly connected, and some of the most confused and vulnerable are our students. Young people need guidance during tragedy, and though home is where they turn first, schools must also be responsive. Children spend most of their time among classmates and teachers, so school should be a place of comfort and community, where they feel safe and receive the help they need. Even if a tragic event has not struck your community, you as a teacher should be equipped to deal with emotional fallout. Just because something didn’t happen to someone your students know personally doesn’t mean that they're unaffected.

On July 20, 24-year-old graduate student James Holmes allegedly entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and allegedly opened fire on an unsuspecting crowd. 71 people were shot, with 12 killed and 59 others injured. The community of Aurora has been devastated by the incident, but we have all felt it, and when school starts again, your students may still be talking about it. How will you handle their questions?

How Teachers Respond

When guiding your students through a crisis, you must always follow the policies of your school or district. It is crucial during a sensitive time that you establish yourself as an authoritative support figure without overstepping your bounds. Many school districts do have policies in place, so familiarize yourself with them; and if your school or district does not, encourage your principal to begin a discussion.

The National Association of School Psychologists also has a guide called "Helping Children Deal with Tragic Events in Unsettling Times." Here are a few things from there to keep in mind:

  • Be Honest and Clear: Be open with your students, and speak honestly about what happened. That said, keep in mind your students’ age and emotional state, so that you share information appropriately. Avoid rumors and misconceptions that can confuse or scare your students.
  • Encourage Feelings and Reactions: Allow your students to absorb what has happened, and give them the time they need to process. Assure them that their feelings and reactions are normal, and encourage them to talk, whether openly or one-on-one. Students need to know their feelings matter.
  • Create a Safe Space: The most important thing is that your students feel safe. Make sure they know that the classroom is a place where they are protected and that their teachers are there for them. It is also important to create a sense of normalcy so that students feel secure. Continue a normal school day while still being responsive to their needs.
  • Express and Educate: There are activities you can do that will help your students cope. Artistic or writing exercises are very cathartic and allow them to express their feelings in healthy, productive ways. Have them keep a journal of how they feel, write a condolence letter to someone involved or a thank you card to the heroes who responded. This is also an important time to educate. Teach them about coping with tragedy or about issues brought up by the incident.
  • Be Resourceful: You’re not alone in this. Your school has a plethora of resources, including guidance counselors, school social workers and community organizations. Don’t be afraid to refer a potentially troubled student to the guidance counselor or to bring in someone to speak to your class. Talk with your principal and fellow teachers to figure out what kind of support you need to support your students.

How Schools Respond

There are no federal laws that directly mandate how schools should respond to tragedy. Schools are required to have guidance counselors and to make resources available that promote the welfare of students, but specific policies are up to individual districts. School social workers and guidance counselors are specially trained in managing crises and are not only there for the students, but for teachers too. Some schools offer special trainings to prepare teachers and staff members. Many work closely with community organizations to extend their reach beyond the classroom and offer students and families an even wider network of resources.

In response to the Dark Knight Rises shooting, the Aurora Public School District in Colorado has established a Disaster Recovery website for staff members and the community. The website tells teachers to: “Please contact your principal or immediate supervisor or department head. We have access to resources for mental health, victim advocates, counselors and Red Cross that can be sent to you as an individual or to your organization.”

In addition to a helpful list of crisis support phone numbers, the Aurora Public School District also provides pamphlets and resources. "Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events" guides parents and teachers through helping students in different age groups. There is also a page called "Managing Strong Emotional Reactions to Traumatic Events" and another called "Identifying Seriously Traumatized Children," which may be of help. The section on "School Safety and Crisis Resources" is probably the most important, featuring external links to everything from natural disasters and terrorism to school violence and suicide. You can peruse all of these, but you should also check if your school district has similar resources.