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After school shootings, teachers struggle for years with trauma

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/20/2022 Nicole Asbury
Molly Darnell, a teacher at Oxford High School in Michigan who survived a mass shooting at the school in November, throws out a ceremonial first pitch before a Detroit Tigers game last week. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson) © Duane Burleson/AP Molly Darnell, a teacher at Oxford High School in Michigan who survived a mass shooting at the school in November, throws out a ceremonial first pitch before a Detroit Tigers game last week. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

One teacher from Connecticut stretches out her arms when she recalls what it was like to hold and corral her second-graders as they fled from a shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A social studies teacher from Florida still remembers seeing three students’ bodies in the hallway as a SWAT team led her class out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. A principal from Ohio can still hear the high school junior who told the teen who had shot him, “You don’t have to do this; you haven’t killed anybody.”

Across the country, roughly 311,000 students who have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine High shooting in Colorado in 1999, according to a database compiled by The Washington Post, including those in Uvalde, Tex., last month. But hundreds of educators, too, have come through this catastrophe. Afterward, they return daily to the site of their trauma, forced not only to cope, but also to teach children who are healing in different ways. Some educators leave their schools or the profession entirely.

“It changes the dynamic of your psyche,” said Abbey Clements, a teacher who survived a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. “It really does.”

Teachers often put their students’ recovery process ahead of their own, sometimes delaying their healing for months or years at a time, several said in interviews. Some find solace in advocacy.

Ivy Schamis was teaching her class on the Holocaust when a gunman started firing at Stoneman Douglas High in February 2018. The Olympics were coming up, and she and her students were discussing Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games when they heard gunfire.

The students bolted out of their chairs and scattered around the room, but there was no place to hide. Seconds later, the gunman shot through the classroom door’s glass panel. Bullets flew around the classroom, and everyone tried to lie low.

“We were learning history; we weren’t learning how to fight AR-15 bullets,” Schamis said.

Two of her students were fatally shot. Four others from her classroom were injured.

The school reopened two weeks after the shooting. An organization offered therapy dogs for teachers who were healing, and Schamis received a golden retriever named Luigi. He attended her class every day until the summer break.

Schamis stayed at the high school for another year, up until the last student in her classroom that day graduated. She says she wanted to prioritize them before her healing could take place.

She went to therapy after the shooting and realized she needed a break. Even though teaching was her passion, she didn’t want to be back in the classroom. Schamis and her husband, who had visited D.C. for the first March for Our Lives protest in 2018, found an apartment and moved here without knowing a soul in 2020, she said. She works now as an office manager at a Jewish day school.

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Talking about what happened at Stoneman Douglas helps, Schamis said. She and her former students have a text-message group chat and talk regularly. In late May, one of them reached out because he was in a terrible mental state. In the chat, the group reassured and helped him, she said. They also share milestones, like their college graduation announcements.

“They can lean on me; they can lean on each other,” Schamis said. “We help them get through, because there’s always something good around the corner.”

Clements, too, stayed at her school for as long as she could. Clements remembers arriving early to Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012, to prepare for a PTA luncheon. She was planning to make paper snowflakes later in the day.

After class began, she heard a cacophony from the hallway that sounded like falling chairs, she said. She realized it was gunshots. Some students began weeping. Others told Clements to barricade the door. She and 17 students huddled around one another as they listened to 20-year-old Adam Lanza patrol the hallways and enter classrooms, killing children and adults. She knew her students would never be the same.

Roughly six months after the rampage at Sandy Hook, she started going to meetings of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun-violence-prevention nonprofit, and met other survivors who could understand what she had gone through. She attended therapy sessions to talk through what she witnessed. In 2015, she took a job at another elementary school, 40 minutes away. Later, she moved away.

“It was challenging to live and work in Newtown post-horrific tragedy,” Clements, 53, said. “It was the best thing for us to move out.”

At a Student Gun Violence Summit in D.C., she met Sarah Lerner, who had survived the 2018 shooting in Parkland.

Lerner was handing out a quiz for one of her senior English classes when the fire alarm went off. She gathered her students and started following a fire drill’s protocols. Once she was downstairs, she heard what sounded like firecrackers and saw students running.

She ran back to her classroom. Five of her students made it with her, along with 10 others from the classroom next door. As they hid, Lerner got a text from another English teacher that she had been shot.

“When you see someone say, ‘I’ve been shot,’ like in my head, I’m screaming, but you can’t make any noise because you’re on lockdown,” Lerner said. After three hours, a SWAT team came to retrieve them.

Lerner soon realized she was in shock. While she was on the phone with a relative that evening, the relative started laughing. Lerner couldn’t understand what was so funny until her relative explained that she had repeated the same thing three times.

That year, she helped students assemble the yearbook and memorialize the victims.

Lerner still teaches at Stoneman Douglas. In 2018, she was approached by Random House to put together a book, “Parkland Speaks,” that showed students’ poetry, prose and photography.

“Working on that really helped me. Talking about my experience has helped me,” Lerner said. More than that, she said, “the activism piece has helped tremendously.”

For survivors at March for Our Lives, hope, doubt and a gun scare

Lerner and many school shooting survivors have sought healing through advocacy work. After the shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., that killed four students last year, Clements texted Lerner and Sari Beth Rosenberg, a New York City teacher and gun-violence-prevention activist. They had to do something, they agreed; they were tired of seeing massacre after massacre. Together, the three founded an advocacy group, Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence. Lerner and Clements say speaking out has helped them cope.

Another group, the Principal Recovery Network, was formed in 2019 by survivors to help provide school administrators with guidance on navigating a shooting’s aftermath. The roughly 20 principals try to support one another, calling to check in and discussing the trauma they felt — and feel.

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Greg Johnson was in the main office of West Liberty-Salem High School in Ohio on Jan. 20, 2017, when an assistant got a phone call from her husband, who was a high school math teacher. She turned to Johnson and said, “Greg, there’s a shooting in the high school.”

Johnson hoped it was mistake. The building was being remodeled, and he hoped someone mistook construction for gunfire. But he ran over to the high school wing. It was quiet, and the hallways were empty, except for an assistant principal, Andy McGill, who had also rushed there.

The two walked around; McGill smelled gunpowder. Near the restroom, they heard a student say, “Why don’t you just put the gun down? You don’t have to do this; you haven’t killed anybody.”

The two administrators held up their hands and warned the students they were coming in. On the floor was a high school junior who had been shot twice at close range. The shooter was in a bathroom stall reloading.

“Hey, bud, what happened?” McGill asked the injured student.

The shooter heard McGill’s voice and recognized him as his football coach. He slid the gun under the stall, handing it to the administrators. “I’m sorry, Coach,” he said. The victim survived.

After the episode ended, Johnson thought he was coping well. When school reopened, he hosted talks with students about what they had seen and how they felt.

But he was in trouble. “Relationship-wise, I was really pulling away from people,” Johnson said. “I was really taking on the responsibility and letting it be a burden. I was pretty critical of myself if a student or teacher was struggling with the effects of trauma, like, ‘That’s my fault, because we didn’t do enough right afterward.’ ”

On the second anniversary of the shooting, a counselor asked him whether he was okay and told him he wasn’t acting like the principal he used to be. She recommended he seek therapy. There, he got better at dealing with the effects of the shooting. He later apologized to his students and staff members.

“As I was singing their praises about how gritty and how resilient they are, I think I maybe said it in a way that praised that toughness without acknowledging that it’s okay to show weakness,” he said.

One thing that helped, he said, was hearing from other Ohio officials who had faced shootings, including Michael Sedlak, who was an assistant principal in Chardon, Ohio, when a gunman killed three students at a school there on Feb. 27, 2012.

Sedlak heard the gunshots when they fired, initially thinking they were fireworks. He recalled seeing helicopter footage of Chardon High School while he was still inside on lockdown. At one point, he ran through a building with SWAT team members to unlock a room police couldn’t get into.

“It’s a surreal moment when you turn the corner and see all-black, riot-whatever gear and guns,” Sedlak said. “It’s not a school.”

What school shootings do to the kids who survive them, from Sandy Hook to Uvalde

Now Sedlak tries to help other survivors through the Principal Recovery Network. Since the group met for the first time in Weston, Va., in 2019, it has become like a family, he said.

Each time a new shooting happens, members lean on one another for support. After the killings in Uvalde, Sedlak recalled sending the former principal of Sandy Hook Elementary a quick text that said he was thinking about her and offered to chat.

“It’s just a different bond,” Sedlak said. “No one wants to be there. No one wants that bond, but nonetheless, we all have it.”


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