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Clark County schools strive to provide comfort, support in wake of school shootings, tragedies

By , Columbian staff writer
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President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden stand May 29 in front of the memorial outside Robb Elementary School to honor the victims killed in the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden stand May 29 in front of the memorial outside Robb Elementary School to honor the victims killed in the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

In the days that followed the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a communal grief washed across the United States.

Perhaps more painful than the news of the attack was the ever-worsening sense of familiarity as mass shootings continue to plague the country. The events are often difficult for adults to process — let alone children.

In addition to evaluating building security and emergency drills, school districts are tasked with another key responsibility: making students aware of the mental health and counseling supports that are available in-house or elsewhere in the community if needed.

As it becomes clear that student mental health is imperative to school safety, the regular deployment of these resources in emergency situations is, too.

Community resources and school response teams

Jana DeCristofaro is a community response program coordinator at the Dougy Center in Portland, one of several programs that provide third-party grief support to school communities in times of local tragedy, such as a death in the community.

What parents can do

After a community suffers a tragedy, whether that be locally or residual trauma from a nationwide event like the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, children are often unsure where to go with their questions.

“There’s a lot of conversations to have with students with things that are really hard to control,” said Jana DeCristofaro of the Dougy Center in Portland. “A lot of that is understanding that kids are going to be hearing about (events like Uvalde) so you should directly talk to them instead of waiting for them to ask.”

“Leading with open-ended questions like ‘What have you heard?’ and ‘How does the news make you feel?’ can be more initially productive than seeking to correct disinformation,” DeCristofaro said.

Even more important for adults, she said, is to make sure they’ve processed difficult news themselves before leading a potentially intense conversation with a child.

“Maybe even role play that conversation with a friend,” DeCristofaro said. “You don’t want to be a robot with your child, but you also want to make sure your emotions have been tended to.”

As schools expand their use of these techniques and services, she hopes it can help students address their personal struggles or trauma before it snowballs into a more serious situation.

“There’s nobody in the world who hasn’t had a loss or pain experience, yet there’s still almost no education around it,” DeCristofaro said. “Helping educators feel more confident and competent in having a conversation with a child that’s struggling is critical. The more training and awareness that people can have about the basic principles of grief can go a long way to destigmatize those conversations and feelings for students.”

— Griffin Reilly

“The goal of the program is to decrease isolation, provide community and make people — often children — feel heard in times of confusion and pain,” DeCristofaro said.

Following national events like the Uvalde shooting, school districts in Clark County point students and families in the direction of grief support systems and resources that aid parents in their explanations of major events.

Even though answers often aren’t clear or available at all, kids still ask often tough questions. And when those questions go unanswered — or when they’re tackled by the wrong people — it can make things worse.

“When kids have had deaths or traumatic experiences in their life, they’re more at risk for challenges in school, depression and anxiety,” said DeCristofaro. “The peer group support groups are there to help kids feel a sense of connection. To better understand what grief can look like. To keep ongoing connections.”

Though analyzing national events presents gray areas for counselors and grief support groups, providing a physical space for reflection can only ever help, she said.

In Evergreen Public Schools, School Mobilization Assistance Response Teams — better known as SMART — bring administrators, counselors and teachers together to respond to incidents of crisis or grief in school communities.

Usually, team members come from other schools or communities so they can provide an external view of the situation — just as the Dougy Center or other third parties would. Classrooms or other empty spaces are then identified as safe places for the teams to speak with teachers and students.

“These supports can last a whole day, sometimes they last a couple of days,” said Casey Lyons, Evergreen’s director of social-emotional learning and a SMART leader. “It’s set up so we can be flexible.”

Safe places can also provide creative materials for students to take time to address issues through outlets other than conversation, she said.

Though the Uvalde massacre didn’t demand a localized response of this kind, Evergreen and districts across Clark County sent home letters to families that promoted the availability of similar counseling support services.

“Counselors were well aware of what had happened and ready to bring in individual students or support classroom teachers,” Lyons said.

Threat assessment systems

Between May 26 and May 31, three students across Vancouver were arrested in response to incidents of threatening violence or carrying a firearm into school buildings.

On May 26, Vancouver Police Department officers arrested a student at Heritage High School after finding a handgun in the student’s backpack. Law enforcement reported that the student “had no intention of hurting himself or anyone else.”

On May 31, Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested a Skyview High School student for bringing a semiautomatic pistol onto school grounds.

Each of the students in the two incidents are facing charges of second-degree unlawful possession a firearm and possessing a dangerous weapon on school facilities.

On May 30, Vancouver police officers arrested an eighth-grader at Wy’east Middle School who had posted a photo on social media of a gun with the caption “everyone is gonna die tomorrow mostly 8th graders.” That student is not facing any charges.

In response to incidents like these in which Clark County schools become aware of a student exhibiting potentially dangerous behavior or making direct references to violence, districts are encouraged to deploy Educational Service District 112’s student threat assessment system.

When threats are reported, a school forms a team of counselors, administrators, classroom teachers and, depending on the level of concern, the student’s parents. The team then seeks to provide a student-specific plan to move forward, whether through in-school counseling visits or a referral to different resources in the community like the Dougy Center.

At the end of the school year, district officials meet with building administrators from various schools to learn how the threat assessments were used in various situations and the frequency of their usage.

Dave Bennett, the director of security and athletics at Vancouver Public Schools, says this year was the first time he’d been a part of such in-person meetings, as they’d been modified in past years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year was interesting to learn and see the statistics on how many (assessments) were done at each school level and which schools were using them more,” he said. “It was a moment of awareness for us that all of our schools weren’t using them equally, so that’s something we need to work on.”

Bennett said counselors are critical to the assessments, since they are typically the ones who are able to determine the root causes of students’ behavioral issues.

Lyons, of Evergreen Public Schools, is trying to get more classroom teachers involved in not only these specific threat assessments, but the usage of social-emotional learning practices on a wider basis.

“We’ve always been concerned about students’ social-emotional needs, but now after COVID it’s even more so. We’re really concerned,” she said.

Evergreen conducted a “Youth Truth” study this past school year — a survey among its students between third and 12th grades that asked questions about the health of their friendships and relationships, their feeling of belonging and the weight of teacher expectations. Once that data is fully analyzed, Lyons said she is hoping to plan more lessons in social-emotional well-being in classrooms, as opposed to solely in counseling offices or via community referrals.

Seeking Help?

Several organizations and experts in Clark County and the Portland metro area can provide assistance in youth and adult behavioral health, grief counseling and more. Here are a few:

“We’re trying to ingrain (social-emotional learning) practices in classrooms,” Lyons said. “It can’t all fall on the counselors. So even when you’re learning about math, we can find a way to include these pieces. We need to feel much more connected to our community.”