Districts Learn and Sharpen Skills in Trauma-Informed Leadership

October 29, 2018

Two days after North Salem teacher Lauren Svendsen died from a tree falling on her car, the district set up a crisis center in their middle school / high school library. Five months later, forty educators from fifteen districts gathered in the same room to learn and sharpen their skills in trauma-informed leadership and crisis intervention.  
The October 23 program, Road Trip: Focus on Trauma-Informed Schools, presented by Putnam | Northern Westchester BOCES, was led by North Salem Central School District’s administrators—a team that stands out for its breadth of experience with crisis response. Dr. Ken Freeston, superintendent, was principal of a junior high school in 1986 when the entire student body watched the NASA Challenger explode on a live feed. Principal Mary Johnson had taught at Sandy Hook Elementary School and was in close contact with many former colleagues at the time of the 2012 shooting there. A student drowned in Vince DiGrandi’s first year as principal.
“It’s not if, it’s when you will be called to manage a crisis,” said Dr. Lynn Allen, assistant superintendent of BOCES. She is also co-chair of its Regional Crisis Team (RCT)—a group that meets monthly to discuss best practices in the areas of crisis prevention and intervention and provides onsite post-crisis support and follow-up after a serious school crisis.
DiGrandi shared how events unfolded last May when he found out that one of his school’s teachers had died the previous evening during a powerful storm. “There was no electricity. School was closed. Roads were closed. There was no way to physically meet. I called my team. We knew we had to get our crisis chain going. Adam VanDerStuyf, director of pupil personnel services, said, ‘I’ll call Lynn.’”
He was referring to Dr. Allen and BOCES RCT.
With the RCT’s help, they decided to have a one-hour delay the following day so that teachers and staff could regroup.
 “The RCT is truly a life-saver,” said Johnson. “We needed to hug each other.”
“This work is very emotionally charged,” said Dr. Allen. Participants nodded.
Dr. Walter Moran, superintendent of Eastchester School District, participated in the Road Trip. His school district recently requested to join the RCT.  “We want to take the next step,” said Dr. Moran. “When you are in a crisis, you don’t want to be inventing your next steps.”
 “It’s been a few years since we updated our crisis plan,” said Herman Harmelink, principal in the Dover Union Free School District. “It’s good to hear what other people are doing.”
“We want to be prepared,” said Kimberly Zemo, Wilton Public Schools’ Safe School Climate Coordinator. “We want to develop skills to support the people affected in a crisis.”
Through stories of crisis throughout their careers, North Salem administrators passed on the key things one only learns through experience.
“As leaders of buildings and districts, all eyes are on you,” said DiGrandi. “You are only as good as your team. Have regular meetings with the police, the transportation department, the head of your ambulance corps, your teachers. Run situations. Practice.”
“Have a script for bus drivers,” said Johnson. “They are often the first district person a student is in contact with after a tragedy. If a student has died, remove him or her from the auto-communications system. Make sure the bus doesn’t stop in front of his or her home.
“Chappaqua sent us lunch last May,” said DiGrandi. “They told us to pay it forward. Another district had sent them lunch when they were dealing with a crisis. We just did. There’s a teacher here who’s from Amsterdam, New York. Her mom lives next door to the person who rented the limousine that crashed. We just sent the teachers in the Greater Amsterdam Central School District lunch.”