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Ohio Principal Among Network Offering Support After School Shootings

Bouquets of flowers sit on the sign in front of the high school in Chardon, Ohio Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012, days after a gunman killed three students at the school.
Mark Duncan
Associated Press
Bouquets of flowers sit on the sign in front of the high school in Chardon, Ohio Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012, days after a gunman killed three students at the school.

In the days after a teenager shot and killed three fellow students at Ohio's Chardon High School in 2012, then-Principal Andy Fetchik remembers getting a call from someone who knew just what he was experiencing.

It was Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, during the deadly 1999 shooting. DeAngelis told him: It's going to be O.K. You'll get through this. If you have questions, feel free to call me.

Fetchik called, and he found DeAngelis to be a comfort and a resource as Chardon began its recovery.

Now both men are part of a new network of current and former principals who hope to offer support to other school leaders in the aftermath of violence.

"Each shooting is obviously very different, but we share some of the same healing procedures and some of the same follow through after these tragedies," Fetchik said in an interview with WOSU.

The Principals Recovery Network will also advocate for educational resources and policies to help schools prevent violence. It convened this month ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

"This is the network each of us wishes we had when the shooting occurred in our school," DeAngelis said in a written statement.

The group, organized by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, includes 17 current and former principals from schools in 11 states, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the site of a shooting in 2018. Collectively, the participants have lost more than 40 students and staff and seen scores more wounded in shootings over the past two decades.

"We're not experts in recovery, but we're experts in the fact that we lived through it," Fetchik said, "and I think that it will provide a resource that kind of confirms to the school leader that there's others out there and they're not alone."

Fetchik says principals can feel isolated after such a tragedy, because there's so many decisions that must be made.

"While you may feel that way, there’s others that have lived through it," Fetchik says. "You’re going to be able to pull that community together, you’re going to be able to get those students back into the building, you’re going to be able to work with your staff and work on those things that are so important, and it’s not just on your own shoulders.”

Some members said they already reach out to offer support if a shooting occurs, but the network gives their outreach some structure and a centralized contact.

"What better group of people to do it than the folks who have experienced it?" said Michael Bennett, a former principal who was shot in the leg by a student in 2004 when he was a teacher at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York.

Bennett said it would have been helpful back then to hear from a voice of experience about how the situation might impact him long term and how colleagues might have varying emotional responses.

Principal Warman Hall, of New Mexico's Aztec High School, eventually connected with DeAngelis after two students died in a 2017 shooting on the school's campus. But Hall said he, too, felt a sense of isolation and could have used someone with prior experience as a sounding board while initially sorting out a recovery plan.

Schools typically have protocols for the immediate response, he said, but it can be much more complicated to figure out what follows — how to restore a focus on learning, address mental health needs for both students and employees, and navigate anniversaries and commemorations, for example.

"You've got to deal with all the issues of recovery, and that starts happening just as soon as you try to re-establish contact and get the kids back on campus and get the teachers back on campus," he said. "There's no template for that."