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What Helped These K-12 Leaders After School Shootings

It’s been 20 years since Michael Bennett was shot in the hallway of Columbia High School in East Greenbush, N.Y.

The physical injury healed long ago, but the mental and emotional wounds fester, a lifelong trauma he must manage.

“I knew there were certain aspects of this that were going to be difficult, but no one really speaks to the aftermath of a situation like the one we went through,” Bennett, now the superintendent of schools in Greenville, N.Y., said during a webinar hosted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals on May 15. “All the lessons that I’ve learned were that my life was never going to be the same. I knew I was going to need to live with this new normal and I had to find a way to take care of myself.”

It’s a jarring reality that Bennett shares with hundreds of other teachers, students, and school leaders who have experienced shootings in their schools. School leaders—who are themselves victims as much as students, staff, and others who work at their schools—are tasked with leading students and staff through recovery, while trying to come to terms with their own emotions and trauma. Finding the right balance can be difficult, but leaning into support groups, seeking professional care, and making time for self-care can help, Bennett and other school leaders said during the NASSP event.

Although Bennett was a special education teacher at Columbia High when the shooting occurred and he didn’t lead the broader recovery process, he said the experience has influenced his leadership style in the jobs that followed.

In the aftermath of the Feb. 9, 2004, shooting, Bennett, the only one physically injured at the school, took up running, an outlet that, when paired with therapy, “became a pathway to calm and to live somewhat productively.” It forced him to “listen to my body, my breathing, my surroundings, and took my mind off all the different things dancing around in my brain.”

But in the years that followed, Bennett’s anxiety worsened, and he developed panic attacks that “were becoming debilitating for me.”

His doctor in 2021 referred him to a therapist who specializes in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, and that has made all the difference, Bennett said.

“I will admit that I did not know a lot about the effects of PTSD, anxiety, and depression on a person,” he said. “As a special education teacher, I knew what I read and I knew what I saw on some of my students, but it was truly living with it that I gained an appreciation of how difficult it is to live with and how much it affects all aspects of my life.”

There’s ‘no timeframe on recovery’

Like Bennett, Kacy Shahid’s life “changed forever” when a shooting happened on her school’s campus.

Shahid, at the time the principal of Central Visual Performing Arts High School in St. Louis was in a meeting on Oct. 24, 2022, when a substitute teacher came in to say there was a safety concern in the building.

Shahid, now an assistant superintendent in Cahokia, Ill., didn’t know what the problem was, but the teacher’s body language told her everything she needed to know. She immediately called for a lockdown.

When she went into the hallway to investigate, she saw the shooter at the end of the hall, armed with an AR-15-style rifle. As she retreated and closed an office door, he began firing.

Shahid used her Apple Watch to call the police while she sheltered in place.

The story didn’t end when police arrived, exchanged gunfire with the shooter who later died, and cleared the building, though. Far from it.

A student and a teacher were killed, and several others were wounded. Even those who weren’t physically hurt, including Shahid, were left to deal with lasting mental and emotional wounds.

Shahid was diagnosed with PTSD and insomnia following the shooting and has experienced high blood pressure and body aches from the tension she feels to this day.

Still, as a school leader, she was part of the greater school community’s recovery, even as she struggled to process the events herself.

“I was on grid immediately after the shooting in a way that I thought I was supposed to as a leader of the school,” Shahid said. “I wasn’t acknowledging the symptoms of my body.”

To aid her recovery, Shahid was prescribed anxiety medication and leaned into regular exercise as an outlet for her feelings. She journaled and got regular massages to help with the muscle aches.

“There’s no timeframe on trauma, and there’s no timeframe on recovery, and I’m constantly learning,” she said.

A powerful support network

Not every school leader will experience a shooting in their building, but, unfortunately, some will.

So far in 2024, there have been 16 school shootings that have resulted in deaths or injuries, according to an Education Week analysis. Four people have been killed and 25 injured. Education Week has recorded 198 shootings since 2018 that have resulted in injuries or deaths.

The school leaders who have had to guide their communities after a shooting are members of a solemn group with a unique and binding experience, Bennett and Shahid said. It can be a sad realization to be a part of that group, but it’s also becoming a strong network of support.

NASSP in April 2019 launched the Principal Recovery Network, a national network of current and former school leaders who have experienced gun violence in their buildings. The group’s members reach out to school leaders across the country when they hear of gun violence in their community with the intent of offering support and guidance based on their own experiences.

Bennett is a founding member of the network and met with other school leaders in Virginia in late 2018 as the group was forming. Some gathered at a hotel bar, sharing stories of the shootings in their schools, death, and recovery efforts. At one point, Bennett felt out of place. After all, nobody died in the shooting at his school.

That’s when Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine High School at the time of the 1999 massacre, stopped him.

“He reminded me that no one else sitting around the table had been shot and explained that our recovery stories are what bind us,” Bennett said. “It was at that point I knew I found my support and I realized I was going to be OK.”

The group helped Shahid navigate her personal recovery in the aftermath of the shooting and offered guidance for the many complicated logistics that followed—media interviews, reopening the building, commemorative events, and so on.

The camaraderie from the group was helpful, as was the outpouring of support from the local community and outside organizations and people more broadly, Shahid said.

“I realized I can’t do this by myself,” Shahid said. “Even my school staff couldn’t do it with just us because we were all victims. … I’m so thankful for the support.”

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