Going back to school
can be anxiety-provoking enough for some students and parents, but how do you handle the transition in the wake of a major community tragedy? That is exactly the question educators in Aurora, Colorado, have been forced to ask, as students in this community prepare for a new school year just two weeks after a deadly shooting in a local movie theatre left 12 people dead and 58 more injured. Some of the victims were students themselves, bringing this event too close to home for many students in the area. Administrators, teachers and support personnel are preparing for a back to school event in Aurora this year that is sure to be bittersweet and even scary for some of the students they serve.
The Impact of the Tragedy
According to a report at Ed News Colorado
, the Aurora Public School District estimates that approximately 150 students, parents and staff from Aurora schools were in one of the theatres during the shooting. Gateway High School
, the High School closest to the theatre, had 50 current or former students in the theatre alone. One of the victims that was killed, AJ Boik, graduated from Gateway in May.
The suspected shooter, James Holmes, lived in an apartment building not far from the theatre and within close proximity to Paris Elementary School
. Because Holmes rigged his apartment with a complex maze of explosives, many of the residents of that building and buildings nearby were evacuated. About 47 families of Paris students were displaced in this group.
“I think there’s a lot of uneasy feelings with the families…it was very shocking for them,” Lisa Jones, principal of Paris Elementary, told Ed News Colorado. “So I think it’s very important for the students to be able to talk about what they saw, what they heard.”
Bill Hedges, principal of Gateway High School agrees. His school was opened up immediately after the shooting to provide a gathering place for police to interview witnesses of the shooting. With many of his students at the theatre at the time, and others knowing those who were wounded or killed, he believes addressing the issue at school is the right approach.
“They’ve been talking about it for the last 10 days, and what we want to do on our first day is give them an opportunity – not require them to talk about it – but open the door,” Hedges explained to Ed News Colorado.
Plan in Action as Students and Staff Ramp Up School Year
To that end, Aurora Public Schools has scrambled to put a plan in place that will help students cope with the aftermath of the shooting in the face of a new school year. The Huffington Post
reports that the district has received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which they plan to use to hire additional mental health counselors and substitute teachers to assist teachers on staff that are having difficulty dealing with the event and their traumatized students. The district will also use some of its own emergency funds to staff the schools with the proper support.
In addition, the Denver Post
reports that officials for the school district held a meeting for parents and staff at Rangeview High School
to discuss district plans for addressing the incident in classrooms once school resumes. Officials held a news conference as well, to let parents and the general public know what their back-to-school plans were. Around 40 parents and staff members attended the Rangeview meeting, where school officials, the chief of police for the city and mental health professionals discussed what students would be facing when they came to school and what the schools would do to address those concerns.
“The message here is you’re not alone, you have assistance,” John Barry, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools stated at the Denver Post.
The district plans to tackle the issue head on right from the first day students enter their classrooms. According to 9News
, additional counselors and mental health professionals will be on hand to deal with concerns of students and staff for the first three months of school. In addition, teachers have been prepped with an age appropriate script to address issues related to the shooting on the very first day of school and let students know help is available if they need it.
“To do it in a structured environment with a trained educator is a lot better than the hallway, gym or playground,” Barry explained to 9News.
Schools are Safe
The schools also want to convey the message to students, staff and parents that they are a safe place for students to learn. Dan Oates, police chief for Aurora, told parents and staff at the Rangeview meeting that school security was a “top shelf” priority “because it feels right and it feels important.” Superintendent Barry agreed with Oates, when he told CBS Denver
, “Our schools are safe. We have a plan and our students, families and staff are not alone.”
The Aurora Public School District has been commended for its immediate response to the tragedy and its quick action to have a plan in place for students, faculty and parents prior to the beginning of the school year.
“It is unusual for a school system to have a plan in place this quickly,” Dr. David Schonfeld of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement told 9News.
Aurora middle and high schools headed back on August 7, while elementary schools held their first day on August 9.