I was the principal of the high school in Montourville, PA, when TWA Flight 800 blew up on Long Island in July 1996. The recent tragedy in Connecticut, like the other school tragedies we witness, always brings up thoughts not only of disaster. itself, but the tragedy that follows such a disaster. In 1996, our school lost 16 students and 5 adults. In the weeks and months that followed, some of the following events occurred that no school can prepare for and generally has to “catch up” as they go. Some suggestions for managing this are included.
1. The forensic physician must positively identify all victims. Parents will not see their child again, so dental records and DNA samples will be required. Think about what it would have been like to be at the fire station last Friday in Connecticut when parents heard the news about their son.
2. Gifts and money (there were only thousands of teddy bears) will come from all over the world: a quilt from a private girls’ school in Kolkata, cards handmade by children in Ghana, a mural handmade by children in a school in Darwin, Australia … the gifts will keep coming. One day the school will have to decide something that will cause great consternation: the decision to “turn our attention to the living.” No one will know what to do with all the gifts. Do you make a permanent memorial? Do we store them? Can’t we get rid of them properly? what do we do? The day will come when the school, not the families, will have no choice but to move on, and there will be great discussions about the timing for this adjustment … the Superintendent will be harshly judged for the decision to move forward.
3. Funerals will be heartbreaking enough … but cemeteries will present a surreal scene of untold pain. There will be Christmas trees with lights on the tree powered by a generator and gifts under the tree (because the child will need something to play with in the sky) and stockings hanging on tombstones and Christmas carols playing with some electronic device. Some people will have life-size cutouts of their child standing near the Christmas tree at home. I saw this. It was devastating and it is still that way today for me.
4. Siblings will become very angry with their parents who, rightly, will never get over the death of a child, leaving the sibling feeling less loved and neglected.
5. Many families will start a fund in their children’s name with all good intentions. However, huge sums of money will come from all corners of the world and there will be endless nightly meetings to try to come to an agreement on what to do with all the money with the now angry and still grieving parents.
6. Eventually another disaster will strike as it did with us, where one day I was talking to Wolf Blitzer and all the satellite link trucks and black limousines carrying TV news celebrities disappeared the next when a nail bomb made to hand broke out at the Atlanta Olympics. . Suddenly, we no longer existed from a news point of view … which should have been, on the surface, good news, but then we were really alone.
These are just a few of the horrible things that will happen as these sequels unfold. Here are some things, which were arrived at on the spur of the moment, that worked for us …
1. Volunteers will come from everywhere … don’t reject them … you help them and yourself if you can invent something for them to do where there is no work … people need to be close to other people in a tragedy . We had counselors, teachers, ministers, and soldiers, and just moms, dads, grandparents, and students who came from everywhere.
2. Religious people of all faiths will come … they will leave a place of reflection for all religions … for us Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most helpful as they organized and hung each email on the wall and dealt with the thousands of live plants and flowers that were sent to our school from everywhere as will happen in Newtown. Do not exclude anyone … allow all religions to leave literature in a quiet and respectful place. Stay in touch with the local ministry, usually made up of all the clergy in the city … they can help spread messages to their respective flocks and help in a variety of ways.
3. Hire a company that deals with establishing trust funds and large donations. This will take many hours and school officials will have schools to run and their whole lives will be devoted to things they have no experience in … these people must give the best of themselves to the living. Parents are not prepared for the logical thinking required of such meetings.
4. The school must respect mental health professionals and grief counselors, but someone must be in charge of these people and the Superintendent and administrators must never forget that they are in charge of the building and not the professionals in the building. mental health. Madam Superintendent, try not to relinquish control of the building to people who lack that kind of experience, just as you lack the experience to provide advice. It is not an exaggeration from my experience to say that sometimes the comfort dogs that were brought in often provided more instant relief to grieving people.
5. School Board members should be reminded that they are citizens like everyone else, unless they meet as a group and vote for something as a group. Individual Board members will walk into the school, each with their own agenda on how things should be done … a strong superintendent has to keep control of this or chaos will ensue and everyone will give conflicting instructions and have ideas creative but contradictory. Individual board members must accept orders and not give them in this environment.
6. Children are much tougher than we think … at one point in the fall, a group of students said … “this is not another special program for us poor downtrodden Montoursville students, is it? In other words, they were ready to move on even though the adults wanted to “help” them a little more … talk to the students to find out when they have had enough “help”, they always know.
7. Adults will deny that they need counseling thinking that only children need help from professionals. Getting teachers to take a week off using substitute teachers in some organized way … they have to get away for a while whether they admit it or not … I still cry over all these tragedies because of the thoughts coming back to me. I was the tough guy who was supposed to be in charge … pay attention to adult needs, we didn’t do it enough.
These are just a few thoughts from someone who had to deal with the aftermath of the disaster … not all the talking heads on television know what they are talking about. They never had to deal with something like that.