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‘The Work Is Therapy’: Principals Help Each Other Recover From School Shootings

The Principal Recovery Network is a club that no school leader wants to join. Yet when its members meet, they greet and joke with each other like family.

“If people saw us together, and if they knew why we gather, they’d think there’s something wrong with us,” quipped Andy McGill, the assistant principal at the rural West Liberty-Salem High School in West Liberty, Ohio.

In 2019, McGill came together with 21 other educators to form the PRN, a support and advocacy group for current and former school leaders who’ve survived and led their schools through the aftermath of a violent incident like a shooting.

Two years prior, McGill and Greg Johnson, the principal of West-Liberty Salem, had talked down an active shooter on the school’s premises with the help of a student. While the student was shot, the trio managed to limit the harm to the rest of the school. Still, the incident shocked the rural school and spurred the need for ongoing mental health counseling for students and staff. It also made Johnson and McGill realize they needed help to make their school feel like a safe space again.

The PRN extends support to school leaders in the immediate aftermath of a violent incident. An introductory letter, followed by a “recovery guide,” talks principals through practical tips and strategies on several short- and long-term decisions like reopening schools, organizing mental health support for students and staff, dealing with the flood of donations from well-wishers, and planning memorials to commemorate the the incident. The guide is based on the lived experiences of its members.

Leaders who weren’t present on campus during the incident are often tasked with leading schools reeling from the aftermath. The PRN reaches out and invites them to join, too.

Elizabeth Brown took over as the principal of Forest High School in Ocala, Fla., in 2019, shortly after an active shooter opened fire in the school’s hallways, severely injuring one student.

“I joined [the PRN] to learn from others because I was walking through a cloud of what to do next. Their experience was very beneficial to me,” Brown said in the video above.

Brown is now co-facilitator of the PRN alongside Frank DeAngelis, the former principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two students, in 1999, carried out one of the deadliest attacks in a school building.

While school shootings that lead to injuries or deaths remain statistically rare, there have already been 20 such school shootings in 2024 so far, according to Education Week’s analysis. In 2023, this number stood at 38.

In addition to helping principals following a violent incident, the PRN also focuses on mitigating such incidents in schools. Last month, 16 members of the group met with members of Congress to advocate for more funding and resources, especially to provide consistent mental health services in schools.

The advocacy work, coupled with the friendship that the PRN’s members have struck up, helps principals cope with their own mental health in the aftermath of an incident, said Johnson.

“The healing part [of the PRN] is that we have a purpose. How can we help the next principal, help students and staff?” he said in the video. “There are some good things that have come out of terrible situations.”

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