‘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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  • Rachel Anderson

    Great letter. I hope all the principals at BUSD are sending out similarly age-appropriate emails/flyers to elementary and middle school families, too.

  • Betsy Bigelow-Teller

    Thanks to Mr. Scuderi for his leadership in sharing information, guidance and resources with the school community on this sad day.

  • Howie Mencken
  • Howie Mencken

    From a berkeleyside poster 3.22.11: “…“I just read the principal’s e-mail. While I’m ranting, the weak tenor of the e-mail is infuriating. It sounds to me like the attitude is ‘ho-hum, all in a day’s work’ — where is the urgency to fix a system that clearly has majorly failed?”
    http://www.baycitizen.org/education/story/berkeley-high-students-guns-life-safe/

  • The Sharkey

    The solution to the problem of guns on campus at BHS is clearly more hugs. Maybe they could replace science and math with cuddle parties and massage training?

    Really though, its impossible to prepare for a freak occurrence like this. If we live our lives constantly in fear about things that are so unlikely, we kill most small joys in life.

  • bgal4

    Has BUSD allowed active shooter training at all the school sites? I know that for years BPD asked for the opportunity to train/orient officers to school sites and the district was not interested. Michelle Patterson invited BPD to train over a holiday when she was principal at Willard many years ago. I think it was two years ago BPD finally did some training at BHS training. Since Columbine police response is to immediately seek the shooter during a mass shooting, knowledge of the campus is an advantage, pretending it won’t happen here is comforting, but does not help prepare for a threat.

  • The Sharkey

    Does your family prepare for lightning strikes?

  • bgal4

    I have seen several lighting strikes during my years in the Colorado high country, so yeah, I have run like hell off a mountain peak and seen a tree split in half right in front of us.

    Your comment seems hostile and silly. There has been 7 mass shootings this year in the US, clearly the number of incidents has risen, while still unlikely to die in a mass shooting, being prepared is wise. Oakland police train at all school sites, is Berkeley immune to the threat to your thinking.

  • The Sharkey

    No matter how well you plan, people will die in situations like this.
    No matter how scary a situation like this is, your child is almost infinitely more likely to get killed by a car on their way to school than by a crazed gunman.

    I just think we need to keep some perspective.
    There are a lot of more pressing issues with BHS than trying to prepare for something like this.

  • Howie Mencken

    bgal4…Experiences determine our reactions. I am grateful we have the benefit of yours.

  • bgal4

    Providing weekend access for police drills to the school sites does not require much effort from any school staff. The Portland mall shooting was quickly stopped due to fast police response.

  • bgal4

    Thanks, I think experience determines knowledge as well, my husband who processes community survey data regularly likes to say “where you sit is where you stand”.

  • The Sharkey

    I’m not disagreeing with that. BPD and BHS should certainly have a plan in place for any on campus violence. I’m more talking about scaring kids with a lot of grownup talk and worries about things that will almost never happen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joan-Winnek/1086866230 Joan Winnek

    Yet what happened in Connecticut happened to all of us, if we have an ounce of awareness. It is a grave mistake to think that children don’t know on some level, and many feel things more intensely than adults. I thank Principal Scuderi and all the many educators who hold our children’s well being in their hands.

  • The Sharkey

    Did it happen to all of us? Are these deaths more important than the hundreds of thousands of deaths being caused by our ongoing wars in the Middle East? Yes it’s absolutely tragic and awful and a horrible waste but let’s try to keep a little perspective.

  • bgal4
  • bgal4

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/nine-facts-about-guns-and-mass-shootings-in-the-united-states/

    Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States:

    1. Shooting sprees are not rare in the United States.
    Mother Jones has tracked and mapped every shooting spree in the last three decades. “Since 1982, there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii,” they found. And in most cases, the killers had obtained their
    weapons legally:

  • Howie Mencken

    Sharkey…Agreed. We all have different emotional maps. What happens physically close is felt strongly. But close emotional identification brings distant tragedies home. The perspective you advise requires counting every life equally. We’re not nearly there.

  • pedant

    *does not require any effort* or requires hardly any effort*
    double negatives are confusing.

  • sky

    Wow. I… just… wow. I never thought I would agree so strongly with you, Sharkey. Standing ovation type of comment here.

  • bgal4

    edited, thx

  • Berkeleyborn123

    Big man sharkey, not sure if you had kids or kids who were at that school that you’d be singing that tune.

  • The Sharkey

    Mother Jones is a pretty hard-left-wing magazine that has been pushing for gun control for a long time and happily uses any shooting as a rallying cry for gun control. I can’t think of a single shooting that’s ever happened that they didn’t immediately use to call for more gun control laws, even when such laws would have done nothing to stop that incident.
    An an example, they reported the Lovelle Mixon mass shooting (which, oddly, Mother Jones doesn’t include in the list of shootings in the article you linked to) as a case for more gun control even though they mention in the article that such weapons were already banned here, and he did not buy those guns legally so stricter point of sale gun laws would not have helped.

    http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2009/03/police-deaths-call-renewed-assault-weapons-ban

    I confess I’m not up to speed on what’s been going on with gun laws in the United States lately so a lot of what they’re saying may be reasonable, but in this particular case the gunman got the guns illegally (murdered the owner and stole them) and had actually been refused the purchase of a gun earlier as a result of already existing gun laws.

    How do we keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and criminals while still allowing law-abiding citizens to have access to them? Should we focus more on controlling the sale of firearms, or more on providing easier access to mental health care for troubled individuals? It’s a tough issue with a lot of nuance.

  • Howie Mencken

    Bp123…Put your strength into getting BUSD to provide weekend access for police drills to the school sites.

  • bgal4

    Howie, I happened to speak with Officer Melero today since we had gunfire last night. I learned that the entire Dept has done quite a bit of active shooter training. Since Columbine police response protocols have changed, apparently more important than knowing the school layout is the mental training requiring a specific set of reactions and procedures. I think the school district has improved in some respects on school safety issues, they would likely allow access when needed.

  • Howie Mencken

    bgal4…Thank you for you vigilance. It comes at a price I admire you for paying.