How can anyone, including school leaders, be prepared for violent events to happen in schools? Most of us who work in schools have never experienced school from that perspective. This week, my graduate students and I discussed the book Columbine (Cullen, 2009) in class, and their question was truly this. It brought my memory back to a few unexpected specific incidents, one of which I will share.
While we all focus on instructional leadership and being in classrooms as much as possible, let’s face it; an administrator sometimes has to handle difficult, uncomfortable, and sometime slightly dangerous circumstances. As an assistant principal at a large high school, certainly there were some occasions when I had to intervene on a conflict between students, and sometimes that was physical. One time, I broke up what I thought was a fight between two girls (turns out it was really an assault), and the student I ended up removing from the situation actually turned on me and started hitting me, pulling my hair, etc. Wow….. was I surprised. Usually, once I was able (most often with the help of others) to separate the students in an altercation, I was able to deescalate the student enough to start the physical and emotional triage process. Luckily, I had participated in some self-defense courses over my life and was able to focus on keeping myself relatively unhurt without aggression on my part until another grown-up came to assist. It took every ounce of me to maintain the self-control to not follow my “instinct” to fight back. Of course, that would have been professionally unethical.
I brought up this example in class in relation to the question about how does a school leader ever truly prepare for a situation like what happened at Columbine High School or other unexpected violent events. Of course, we talked about how police and school officials have plans in place now that they didn’t back in 1999, although one could argue that there are always loopholes in safety plans. However, what I shared with them was this. I would visualize, over and over again, some worst case scenarios. One of them was what I would do if a student in my building had a weapon. My hope was that through that mental training and practice (like the same type of visualization that good athletes use), that what I had visualized would actually happen, as opposed to the instinct that might want to take over. I also stated that by maintaining my physical well-being, I always felt more prepared to perform whatever task might come about, since unexpected events happen in schools every day, like when I ended up being attacked by a student.
*On a side note, my students and I really appreciate the fact that to this day, Mr. Frank DeAngelis is still the guide, the sage, and the principal of Columbine High School.
Cullen, D. (2009). Columbine. New York, NY: Twelve Publishers.