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“I’ve never seen shellshock like that,” said Bruce Law, superintendent of Township High School District 113, describing the look in people’s eyes as they came to the district’s schools for mental health support the day after the mass shooting.

Manuel Martinez

Highland Park students seeking ‘some sort of normalcy’ as class resumes after mass shooting

One day after the Highland Park parade shooting in July, the local high school district opened its doors to offer free counseling to the community. People showed up at the red brick school near the mass shooting ready to help, while others came to the doors in utter disbelief.

“I’ve never seen shellshock like that,” said Bruce Law, who leads Township High School District 113. “The look in some of the people’s eyes I was talking to, it is a look like I’ve never seen.”

Law and other administrators have been hard at work since then, preparing to welcome back Highland Park and Deerfield high school students and staff after a summer no one ever expected. Seven people were killed and dozens were injured after a gunman opened fire.



WBEZ

Students and others impacted by the Highland Park shooting gathered for a memorial in the days after the July 4 shooting.

Manuel Martinez

They’re planning for everyone — those still struggling with trauma, others who may seem fine. They’re providing additional help for students, staff and even the community. Administrators are paying particular attention to the needs of staff, to keep them healthy and ready to support students. Law said preparations have been shaped by advice from experts and other school districts impacted by mass shootings.

“Unfortunately, there’s expertise in this area because of the number of shootings,” said Law, a trim man who has been the superintendent for three years. “Now that we are in this awful club, it has been helpful to talk to individuals who have had more experience in doing what we’re trying to do.”

The return

District staff will be at the district’s two schools on Monday getting ready for opening day on Wednesday. They’ll be hearing from one of those experts, Scott Poland, a psychologist and co-director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University. He’ll be talking about trauma and creating a safe space. He’ll also meet with the community in the evening.

While the district’s plan focuses a lot on students, the emotional fatigue experienced by some staff is not lost on Jennifer Ginopolis. She is the director of recovery, a new position created in response to the shooting. She said teachers were already exhausted from the pandemic.

“I talked to a staff member the other day, and she said, ‘I do not want anybody else to ask me how I’m feeling right now,’ ” Ginopolis recalled. “There’s such a range of emotions that’s going to enter our building [among] students, staff. So just reassuring everybody that it’s okay to have a moment where you feel joy. It’s okay to have a moment that you do not want to think or talk about it.”

The start of the school year is stirring up some anxiety for students, including 16-year-old Jagger Barnes. But the high school junior thinks getting back to class will be good for her.

“I think it also might be beneficial just to be surrounded by people who’ve always supported each other,” said Barnes, who has a gentle smile. “I feel like now more than ever it’s super important to get back to that and some sort of normalcy will be great.”

Earlier this summer, Barnes fled the parade route along with hundreds of others when shots rang out. She found comfort in the days that followed with an organization called SALT, Service and Learning Together. They made T-shirts and yard signs to raise money to help victims of the shooting. She hopes students can find continued support at school.

“It’s not going to magically become easy for everyone at a certain point,” she said. “It might not ever.”

Tiffany Rowe, assistant superintendent of student services, said some people may not even feel the effects of their trauma until many months later. And that includes the adults. The district is looking at staff surveys to see what would be most helpful. Rowe said there will be a lot on teachers’ shoulders.

“What we keep telling staff is it’s like riding an airplane, right now,” Rowe said. “We’re saying put on your oxygen mask before you help your kids. So we’re providing all these other supports for our students, but we know that we’re gonna really have to take care of our staff so that they can be there for the kids.”

The district is considering offering spaces where staff can decompress during free periods. They’re also planning to get therapists on contract.

For students, Ginopolis said the district’s plan includes hiring a few instructional coaches this fall to help teachers respond in the classroom and social emotional interventionists who can work directly with students using a research-based program called Check-In/Check-Out.

“They would work with a caseload of students that probably need our most support,” she said. “If they’re dysregulated, they could help regulate them.”

She said the interventionists also could work with small groups and add more students as needed as the year progresses.

Thinking long term

The district is applying for federal reimbursements, but it’s ready to cover the costs if the grant is not approved. Law said this has been top of mind for all the administrators this summer, and he wants to make sure they are going to be ok as well.

Administrators put their heads “down and get the job done, and work really, really hard at it,” he said, “which also worries me a lot because we have our limits, and we have our points where we get burnout.”

A lot of responsibility often falls on schools in the aftermath of a shooting. Law said his district has a strong safety plan, but that won’t fix the larger problem.

“It concerns me greatly that we seem to think this is normal in the U.S.,” he said of mass shootings. “I’d much rather spend time trying to figure out how to improve student outcomes, for the reasons I got into this business, and not all the time we spend on evaluating security procedures, meeting with law enforcement, evaluating new technology that could try to improve safety.”

Law hopes students and teachers feel safe this year and can do normal things like celebrate homecoming and help students apply for college. But he said he also hopes people with the power to make decisions will finally find a real solution.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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