On Sept. 4, around 10 a.m., I hung up the phone in my office after having spoken with an expert in the field of children and grief.
We were discussing the upcoming third-year mark of our school shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School that also happened in the fall, around 10 a.m., where we lost five young lives. I noticed a headline on my computer saying that there had been a school shooting in the Freeman School District. I shouted to my assistant that I was going to Freeman to help, received an email stating that the Empire Health Foundation would foot the bill for my travel and was on my way. Truly, this all happened within about five minutes.
Why did I go? Why did I go uninvited? Because that is what we do in Washington state – we take care of each other. School shootings are senseless. Children shouldn’t die at school. If any lessons can be learned from each other, and students, staff and families can heal more quickly – then that is what we should be about.
This shooting immediately brought back actual physical and emotional feelings to me from three years ago. Trauma is additive and affects the body as well as the mind. Likely, our amazing staff in the Marysville School District were having the same overwhelming response because the offers of help immediately rolled in. Within minutes we had personal cell phone numbers for our football coach, DECA adviser, principals and former Associated Student Body officers who stood at the ready. Our mayor and city leaders offered their assistance as well.
What did I share? Only the lessons we had to learn the hardest way imaginable. Lessons such as bringing people together immediately. Freeman took that advice and brought families and students back together within 20 hours after the shooting to talk about their fears, to ask hard questions, and to hug and cry with each other. I applaud their bravery and leadership, as it is very difficult to lead where you have never gone before. By Friday afternoon, with little to no sleep on staff members’ part, they had come together to plan what school should look like on Monday morning. The main question they needed to answer was, “How do we support our students, families and staff as we reclaim our school and our district?” The dedicated, passionate staff members planned for every detail they could imagine. These educators, who were thrust into the position of being first responders, were strategizing how to welcome their students back, while providing a wide array of emotional supports for them at the same time.
I returned home before the big Friday football game between Freeman and Medical Lake. I was so happy, however, that the decision was made to indeed have the game – as students who have gone through something like this crave time together and to just be kids again. There is nothing like the laughter of children to remind us of our values and purpose.
I am no expert in school shootings. Instead, I am in a fraternity – with the Freeman School District – that none of us want to be in. As a result of our tragedy, I am often asked about my perspectives on gun control, metal detectors and a myriad of school safety ideas. My answer is usually that there really are no simple solutions and easy answers to this social problem. I do know, however, that children’s mental health is an issue we must talk about and build support for. It will take all of us to learn how to best support our youth.
In the meantime, what educators know about is how to build meaningful relationships with students. If every student is known by name, strength and need, and has a trusted adult they can confide in and with whom they can seek help, I believe our schools, and communities, and society will be safer in the end.
Becky Berg is superintendent of the Marysville School District. She was superintendent of the Deer Park School District.