‘Today seems like a day to hug our kids a little harder’

Berkeley High Principal wrote to the school’s community today

Berkeley High’s Principal, Pasquale Scuderi, this afternoon sent an emailed letter to the BHS community in the wake of the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, CT, this morning. In it, he addresses how the school has dealt with communicating news of the mass shooting at an elementary school to BHS students, issues of security on campus, and shares guidelines on how to talk to our children about such a senseless and potentially traumatic incident.

We publish the letter here in full:

Dear BHS Families:

This morning, following the devastating news we all received from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, we made a brief announcement to the staff and students updating our community on what we knew to be the facts, and encouraging us all to support one another as a school community. We simply asked that as a staff and student body we keep our thoughts and positive energy moving in the direction of the families, children, and fellow educators who are in the midst of a tragedy whose dimensions are still nearly impossible to fathom.


I wanted to let you all know that we have met with our counseling staff and students who may need support processing this will first be referred to their assigned counselor who will then assess and take secondary steps like parent contact or health center referrals depending on what is appropriate. So far students have not requested or visibly required this support in any significant numbers, yet we wanted our families to know that there was a protocol in place should those needs arise.

While we will not overreact to the situation and turbocharge any anxieties students may be feeling in light of this news by somehow implying that this morning’s deeply tragic and appalling events constitute a threat at BHS, we will increase visibility of safety staff and administrative staff throughout the afternoon to hopefully provide some indirect reassurance to staff and students with lots of adult presence in the hallways.

Ironically, administrators had already discussed conducting a school lockdown drill next week prior to the break and, needless to say, this morning’s event are a grim reminder of the necessity of that aspect of our work.

Below are some broad guidelines we shared with teachers and staff this morning on how to facilitate discussion of tragic and difficult events in class. Perhaps you will find it helpful in some way at home. At minimum, the news, and the way it travels like wildfire via social networking and mobile media, may make concentration on content difficult so we want to make sure teachers can acknowledge and respond if classes need some space to process, ask questions, or get facts.

I plan on sending out an extended winter newsletter over the e-tree next week to update families on the many positive things happening here on campus, but today’s events in Connecticut seemed to warrant some individual acknowledgement.

As an education professional, I can tell you that this morning’s events are the absolute worst case scenario a school community can imagine. As parents, I’m sure you have the deepest empathy for the unimaginable scope and scale of the sadness that was exacted upon that community this morning.

Today seems like a day to hug our kids a little harder, regain the perspectives that are often lost in the frenzy of our daily concerns, and send all the love and positivity we can to our brothers and sisters back east.

Respectfully,
Pasquale Scuderi, Principal, Berkeley High School

FYI -Shared with staff this morning….

Colleagues:

Should you or your students be compelled to talk about the events in Connecticut this morning, here are some broad guidelines employed by several schools and universities.

You are not obligated to provide discussion time in class, but use your judgement. Even if you do not wish to lead or facilitate any type of discussion, it is probably best to acknowledge the event at a minimum.

A national or local tragedy can result in students having difficulty concentrating.

If you choose not to devote discussion time to the event, you might mention to students that tragedies stir up many emotions, and that you want to remind the students that there are resources on campus where they might consider seeking support. As previously mentioned, send students in need first to their counselors.

If you wish to provide an opportunity for discussion here are some ideas for promoting a healthy dialogue:.

1. Discussion can be brief
Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of a class period or meeting with a set timeframe.  Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period.  This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak.

2. Acknowledge the event
Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event, and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions students may have.

3. Allow brief discussion of the “facts,” and then shift to emotions
Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened, and “debating” some details.  People are more comfortable discussing “facts,” than feelings, so it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief period of time.  After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions.

4. Invite students to share emotional, personal response
You might lead off by saying something like: “Often it is helpful to share your own emotional responses, and hear how others are responding.  It doesn’t change the reality, but it takes away the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”

5. Troubleshooting distress reactions
If students begin “debating” the “right way” to react to a tragedy, it is useful to comment that each person copes with stress in a unique way, and there is no “right way” to react.

6. Be prepared for blaming
When people are upset, they often look for someone to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of anger. It is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things “right.” If the discussion gets “stuck” with blaming, it is might be useful to say “We have been focusing on our sense of anger and blame, and that’s not unusual. It might be useful to talk about our fears.”

7. It is normal for people to seek an “explanation” of why the tragedy occurred
By understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be prevented in the future. You might comment that, as intellectual beings:

We always seek to understand.  It is very challenging to understand “unthinkable” events. By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain.   Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes is inevitable.  As a facilitator, it is better to resist the temptation to make meaning of the event.

8. Thank students for sharing, and remind them of resources on campus
In ending the discussion, it is useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, you can encourage them to check in with their counselors or yourself if you feel comfortable providing that support.

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