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Violence, School Climate, and "Normal" (Part I)

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The first anniversary of the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting was marked by numerous news stories about that community's requests for media restraint.

Book releases "pegged to" notable anniversaries often accompany such occasions; Kira Goldenberg panned one such title in the Columbia Journalism Review. School leaders, teachers, and parents in search of possible solutions — how violence happens in and around schools and how it can be prevented — may turn to two recent books by and for educators.

Today we consider Reclaiming School in the Aftermath of Trauma: Advice Based on Experience, edited by Carolyn Lunsford Mears (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Mears published a Commentary in Education Week last year in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and her book has been previously mentioned on BookMarks.

Reclaiming Schools is a collection of essays on, among other topics, the experience of trauma and recovery from the interrelated biochemical, neurological, and psychological perspectives. Educators working with schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11, the mass shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, and other traumatic events detail what has and hasn't worked for their communities and why. Mears concludes the book with a list of resources and a brief description of methods used in her ongoing interviews with members of the Columbine High School community.

Contributors to this anthology grapple with what "normal" is:

• Alan Kirk (a post-disaster intervention expert) and Steve King (a social worker) describe what goes on in the brain during and after trauma. They relate "normal" to a sense of safety and control: "The degree of powerlessness felt by individuals in the face of various dangers influences the level of psychological trauma they experience."

• Paula Reed, a vocational English teacher at Columbine High School at the time of the 1999 shooting there, recounts her personal experience of post-traumatic stress disorder with this preface: "I am not a naturally depressed person. I am a caregiver and endless optimist. As a teacher, I am dedicated and competent." She struggles to reconcile her "normal" self with depression, a condition she considers abnormal to her and incompatible with the positive qualities she lists.

• Following an unprecedented school shooting in Jokela, Finland, school and civic officials realized that "teachers in Jokela had no peers at other schools in Finland to ask how to manage the challenges they faced." Adjusting to a new "normal" in which school violence played a more prominent part required educators to create "aftercare" (post-trauma) support systems practically from scratch.

• Administrators at Virginia Tech, in the aftermath of the 2007 shooting there, "reasoned that special attention should be rendered to the needs and perceptions of Korean students, given that the shooter was of Korean heritage." Culturally competent care, as this approach is called, considers cultural norms in the design of recovery programs.

One student Mears interviewed tackles the issue of "normal" head-on:

'The one question people ask that bothered me then and still bothers me today is, Are you back to normal? I say this time and time again. We will never be back to normal. That old normal doesn't exist anymore, so you have to just redefine what normal is. It's a different normal for Columbine High School.'

Mears writes touchingly that "intense grief may be felt ... for the loss of possibility." It may be that reclaiming "possibility," rather than "normal," offers a realistic way forward for schools.

In my next post, I'll review Leadership, Violence, and School Climate: Case Studies in Creating Non-Violent Schools by Kyle Blanchfield and Peter Ladd (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), which was released this summer.

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