AUSTIN, Texas — There is a refrain common among school shooting survivors: "I never thought that it would happen to me, in my school."
That was one of Michelle Clarke's first thoughts when a 2018 middle school shooting rattled her district in Noblesville, Indiana. Clarke, who at the time worked as a counselor at the nearby high school, vividly remembers being excited to use a snow cone machine that she had rented to celebrate students' college announcements.
"It was just business as usual," Clarke, who is now assistant director of student, school and family engagement at the Indiana Department of Education, recalled at the American School Counselor Association conference on Monday.
The next thing she remembers is a code yellow and at five-months pregnant, hiding in a closet and frantically texting her husband.
In hindsight, Clarke said she believes a robust school crisis prevention and preparation plan could have eased the burden on everyone, especially on school counselors, prior to and in the wake of the shooting. Yet, she said, school counselors often have to bear the brunt of scrutiny post-shooting, Clarke said.
"All I kept thinking is that if schools have measures in place and steps that they take, they [school counselors] don't have to have that burden," Clarke said. "It's not why we got into this profession."
At the most basic level, crisis response and threat assessments can be integrated through the schoolwide activities and individual relationships that support all students and help create their sense of belonging. For example, addressing student behavior and attendance, academics, overall well-being, and college and career readiness should be universal methods to prevent a shooting, Clarke said.
"The more we build relationships with our students, the less of a threat there is," Clarke added.
She also urged more targeted resources like individual and group counseling, suicide screening, safety plans, and re-entry plans for students returning from mental health facilities. "Sometimes [returning] students would just show up without a plan," Clarke said.
Peer mediation, conflict resolution, anti-bullying and mental health programs should all be robust, she added. Part of that can include student-led programs like Students Against Violence Everywhere or Bring Change to Mind.
"Students are the ones who see the red flags before we do," said Clarke. "They don’t always come to adults. We like to think they do, but they don't. Having that peer intervention is key."
Crisis intervention and response
Despite a school's best efforts, red flags are sometimes missed. In those cases, schools will need to rely on their crisis intervention and response plan.
This starts with counselors having a seat at the table when safety plans are being drafted, experts say.
"Sometimes in my journey, I felt like my administrators were taking the lead, and they held those school safety positions, and I never really engaged in that work," Clarke said. "Now that I'm looking at it from a different lens, there should be someone from counseling and mental health [departments] taking part in those school safety meetings."
Counselors, for example, will often be the ones leading student reunification with parents post-shooting or monitoring students during a crisis.
"Administrators and leaders will be called away — they're dealing with homeland security, media, the police force," Clarke said. "They aren't in the gym with the kids. You are. The teachers are. The coaches are."
Schools working to develop a crisis response plan can consider these three best practices:
- Student-guardian reunification strategy
School counselors should be aware of their school's reunification plan — or advocate for the creation of one if it doesn't exist, Clarke said. The reunification plan can include calling students and coworkers who were absent that day to ensure they were, in fact, absent and are not missing.
Counselors should identify other students outside of the immediate classroom or area affected by the shooting who will need help.
Sometimes, students may not have cellphones and will want to call home to update parents. There will be times when counselors will have to tap crisis response teams to help. In this case, counselors should directly connect students to crisis response members so they feel comfortable with strangers in the high-stress situation.
“You know how kids are. They don't want to talk to a crisis response team. They want to talk to you," Clarke said.
In the days following a shooting, counselors should also consider psychological triage — or looking at the unique consequences of crisis exposure for survivors involved, including students in other school buildings who may have had siblings involved, injured or killed in the shooting.
"Even if they weren't directly impacted, some were just really rattled," Clarke recalled about her students in 2018. "It got their fight-or-flight up, because they had some past experiences and some past trauma."
- Post crisis awareness and personal care
Counselors should also have a plan in place for self-care. This includes seeking out professional counseling themselves and taking care of their own basic physical needs like eating and sleeping.
"After all this, I realized I wasn't taking care of myself … It was a heavy lift." Clarke said. Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop not only through personal experience, but also through exposure to others' severe traumatic experiences, she added.
Counselors should be sure to debrief and check in with each other to help with their emotions and stave off burnout. "We never debriefed and asked, 'Are you OK?’" Clarke said. "We take care of kids, but we should take care of each other too."