Students, families and staff members experienced a traumatic event last week at North Thurston High School, and now it’s time to join together and heal.
That was the message of a panel featuring law enforcement, school officials and crisis and mental health experts convened for a special parent meeting Monday night.
About 350 people attended the two-hour event, held a week after a shooting at the 1,500-student school. A student was apprehended in the incident and is in Thurston County Juvenile Detention, facing numerous firearm charges.
Nobody was injured in what school officials refer to as the “shooting incident,” but that doesn’t mean it didn’t inflict fear or pain, panelists said. The school has brought in additional counselors to help students work through the situation.
Mary Schoenfeldt, recovery director with the Marysville School District, which experienced a deadly shooting in October at its Marysville-Pilchuck High School campus, reminded parents that they need to take time to process the incident, too.
“You do not have to be present when something happens to be affected by it,” she said. “There doesn’t have to be a physical injury in order to be impacted from it by both an emotional and mental health perspective.”
Principal Steve Rood said he believed students, staff, police and families handled the school’s critical incident response as well as could be expected. The school has practiced lockdowns, intruder alerts and other emergency drills, he said. But now they’ve ventured into new territory: returning to normal after a scary situation.
“This part of the plan?” Rood told parents at the meeting. “I wish it never had to happen. … We’re going to get through this, but it’s really going to be a collaborative effort.”
When faced with an emergency like a shooting, a human releases about 130 different chemicals, Schoenfeldt said.
“All of a sudden the realization that we believe our lives are in danger, when that happens, not only is there an emotional response, there is also a physical response,” she said.
Schoenfeldt said it’s normal for kids to experience flashbacks and to have difficulties staying focused on school work or performing at their top level in sports.
Some kids will want to talk about the shooting over and over again; some won’t want to talk about it at all, she said.
If a teen doesn’t want to talk with a parent, it’s important that they have access to a counselor, teacher or another adult that they can open up to when they feel ready, Schoenfeldt said.
Trauma expert Steve Langer, who is a member of the Olympia City Council, said teens often experience sleep difficulty after a trauma. He encouraged families to exercise more to release built-up stress caused by those chemicals that were released during the situation.
“(It) helps decrease that physiological response,” he said.
Several parents asked questions about school safety, bullying and the district’s plans to curb violence. One parent asked the district what it was doing to dial down the rumors, or investigate threats that followed the event. Rood said the district has assigned a staff member to monitor social media for threats.
Schoenfeldt added that threats and hoaxes at schools where violence has already taken place are “a given.”
“The day of your incident, we got a threat in Marysville,” she added.
Rood encouraged families to slowly try to get their students back into a normal routine.
“We want them to get back to enjoying the school experience,” he said.
He said the event has generated an outpouring of support from other schools, which have sent flowers, food and photos with their kids wearing North Thurston’s signature dark purple.
North Thurston Superintendent Raj Manhas said the district plans to offer extra support, such as free makeup classes and credit retrieval programs, during the summer for students who are struggling academically due to the incident. The district will continue to offer counseling for kids during the summer if they need it, Manhas said.
Parent Dave Newkirk said he thought school and police officials did a great job handling the event.
He lives near the campus, and several kids ran and took shelter in his home, until the scene was cleared by police.
During the meeting, Newkirk told the panel that he believes parents play one of the biggest roles in preventing school shootings.
“If you have a gun, it’s your responsibility to take care of it,” he said.