Conflicting reports, the descent of the national media and communication problems between various law enforcement groups added to the aura of fear and chaos. Counselors worked to calm terrified students and to help families whose children were still in the school. As the school siege lengthened, counselors offered each family the services of a victim advocate who would stay with them in their homes that night as they awaited word about their children's fates.
As was the case in Newtown, Conn., a drop-in crisis center was established near the school the day after the Columbine shootings, staffed with mental health professionals from the school district and community.
Austin, a counselor at Colorado's Lakewood High School, said that since the Columbine shooting, school districts typically have pre-determined plans for dealing with the community-wide trauma that follows such horrific events, and for the more commonplace tragedies most schools will face — including accidental death of a teacher, student or a suicide. She laid out a typical plan for helping grieving students:
When a tragedy happens, a call goes out to previously identified members of a district's crisis team — selected counselors, psychologists and social workers from schools throughout the district. The team rushes to the affected school to assist its own counselors, whose familiarity in the school community make them best suited to lead the response and work most closely with students. In the case of major events, professional mental health care providers from the community might be called in, too.
Austin said it is typical for a room in a safe zone to be prepared as a "triage" area where counselors can meet with groups of students. In Newtown, a nearby fire station was chosen.
"We have kids go there while we figure out their needs," Austin said. "Some will be obviously upset, wailing and crying. We get them with an individual counselor right away."
In massive tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook, parents will be notified immediately — robo-calls notified the Newtown parents when the school went into lockdown. In the case of lower-profile events, such as a teacher's death, parents are notified immediately if a student is being seen for grief counseling. Usually, the parent comes to take them home, Austin said. The counselor will offer resources for additional care, and arrange for follow-up at school.
While working with groups of students, counselors try to help them process what has happened in whatever way suits them best. Many benefit from talking about what has happened, what they liked best about a friend who died, and why they will miss them.
"Sometimes kids don't want to talk about it at all, and we are sensitive to that," Austin said. "Sometimes it's difficult to talk, but you can draw or write, and that helps kids to process things."
There are natural limits on the role of school counselors and other first responders to grief and trauma, Austin said. They can help bereaved families find other resources, check in with grieving students at school over coming days, and perhaps work with teachers to meet academic needs of grieving students. But their role will dwindle long before the grief does. Ongoing professional counseling grief support groups can help children over the long term, Austin said.
Finding support and healing
"Grieving children are very different than adults, especially younger children, who don't have words to express what they are feeling inside," said Carrie Moore, who co-founded the Bradley Center for Grieving Children and Families in Salt Lake City after her husband died in a plane crash, leaving her three children fatherless.
Bereaved children don't believe adults can understand what they are going though and can be reluctant to talk, Moore said. Directed play and creative activities help, as does support from families in similar circumstances.
There is no timeline for the grief process, and survivors of events like school shootings don't really "get over" what happened, Carlston said. In the first years after Columbine, she thought about the tragedy almost constantly, and used it as a crutch — an excuse for personal failures. Recovery was slower than she could have imagined, but she has progressed.
"Columbine, or some other tragedy, can't define you," Carlston said. "What defines you is how you react to it, and how you are going to move forward."
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