Arming School Psychologists

By: Dr. Kari Oyen, NASP Government and Professional Relations (GPR) Committee Central Region Representative

I can remember that day very distinctly: I was sitting at my desk, completing one of the dozen psychoeducational reports that I had been working on for the coming week's IEP meetings, and trying so hard all day to NOT go down to one of my favorite places in the elementary building, the beloved Coke machine! After about an hour of resisting temptation, I dug around in my desk, found my quarters, and decided I deserved a reward. I walked the long hallway to the teacher's workroom and put my quarters into the machine. I held my breath as I pushed the button, fearing that once again my beloved beverage would be sold out. Much to my excitement, my day improved and the pop was dispensed to me. (Yes, I'm from South Dakota, and yes, we call it pop). Shortly after I opened up my much-needed beverage, I heard a bustle and hustle of kids coming into the hallways. Teachers had been gathered there already because it was recess time and the students were enjoying their 15 minutes of freedom. Through the commotion, I could hear teachers shockingly asking, "What are you doing in here?" "The principal told us to come inside and go immediately to our classrooms," several replied. Not knowing what they meant, we shuffled the students into their classrooms. We then heard on the loudspeaker the words that you never want to hear in an elementary school: "We are in a lockdown."

The first thoughts in my mind were that of Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist killed in Sandy Hook Elementary. I wondered what might have been going through her mind as she heard the first shots fired at that little sleepy elementary school in Newtown, CT. I remember my first instinct was to check the restrooms to see if any students were in the stalls not having heard the message. I did a sweep of one set of bathrooms, and I remember thinking, "Someone needs to go up and check the other stalls." I remember walking down that long hallway, which is shaped in an "L" formation. I remember turning the corner and fearing what I would encounter as I went to check on the children. Upon arrival, I found that those restrooms were cleared as well. Not exactly knowing what to do next, I made my way back to my office in the administrative wing of the building. I had no idea what I was going to encounter, nor what the rest of the day would bring. As I approached the office, I could hear someone saying that there was an active shooter at a neighboring business.

My memories are blurry after the relief and sorrow of that statement washed over me. I can remember a young student who accidentally got locked out of the building when her mother dropped her off at school after an orthodontist appointment. We quickly got her inside and had her go and help the preschool teacher. I remember that my own children were in the building and wondered if they felt safe and secure as this drama was unfolding. I remember feeling fear and frustration as the phone kept ringing off the hook, and I remember struggling to get accurate information from the police scanner. I also remember that after we had the "all clear," we had students filing out of the building while armed police officers with machine guns stood to watch. My most vivid memory was watching as children were reunited with their families and scurried away to their homes to try to make sense out of the day. Many people were impacted in my rural community that day. This gunman was an enraged employee and decided to bring a gun to this local business, killing a local dispatcher and forever changing the lives of a wonderful mom of two of our students. This day forever changed my perspective on crisis prevention and response.

I didn't know what to do. All of my training on prevention and response had not prepared me for the harsh reality of seeing the physical and psychological devastation that violence can bring to a community. I decided then and there that, though I couldn't change the landscape of this situation, I left with only one thing that I could do-Arm myself.

I know what images this tends to bring up. You may picture a school psychologist with a significant arsenal of weapons to fight against the dangers of school violence. As school psychologists, we are trained to do many things. Comprehensive psychoeducational assessments, diagnostics, and evidence-based interventions. After that time, I knew that I needed more knowledge and training so that I could be better prepared to prevent and respond to such heinous acts. 

I first armed myself with knowledge. I purchased as many books on crisis prevention and response as I could find. I remember reading the PREPaRE book for the first time and being fascinated by the different kinds of safety-Physical and psychological. I found ways to address safety measures at school as well as how to effectively respond to varying levels of a school crisis. Later, I attended PREPaRE Workshop 1 and Workshop 2 and began to arm myself with the language that would allow me to be a resource to my school and my community if this type of action were to occur again.

I then decided to arm myself with advocacy and useful communication skills. Not only is it essential to know best practices, we must also be mindful of how we portray this messaging to the stakeholders who surround us. I began disseminating information about responses to school violence on my webpage as well as my Facebook page so that people would know I could be a source of accurate and helpful information. I used NASP resources to arm my stakeholders with excellent information. I gave information to my superintendent, principals, and other support staff about effective responses to gun violence in schools. I thought about central messages that frameworks for school safety could mean for my school. Bottom line: I became prepared to talk about what is essential for schools to address mental health and safety, and I just started talking about it with those around me.

Each time I hear of another school shooting or mass shooting, I am often brought back to that sleepy little day in Lennox, SD, when my biggest struggle before 2:00 p.m. Thursday, February 12, 2015, was whether or not to get a pop. I will not forget the lessons of that day about the reality building in our society regarding significant mental health needs for some of our most vulnerable youth. In the landscape of Sandy Hook and now Parkland, I urge all school psychologists to arm themselves. Build an arsenal of systematic supports for students right around you. Arm yourself with best practices in systems prevention, crisis prevention, threat assessment, and crisis response. Maybe even take a webinar or two! You don't know when your time will come to be that first responder, and hopefully you will arm yourself with the things that will help solve this mess that we have gotten ourselves into.