Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tsunami Warnings in the Pacific

As I write this, we are less than an hour away from a predicted tsunami hitting the islands of Hawaii.  An earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale struck off the coast of Chile last night and has sent waves as high as 8 feet across the Pacific. Hawaii is predicted to get something, although we don't know how bad it will be.  A tsunami warning has been issued, and beaches are being evacuated.  The west coast of the United States and Canada has a less dire tsunami advisory.

It has been said that the waiting is the hardest part.  In this instance, it depends very much on whether a tsunami actually hits and how big it is whether that will turn out to be true.  I can imagine this is fairly scary for small children, and depending on how well the evacuations are going, it might be pretty frightening to adults, too.  Presuming there is a tsunami, there may well be some work for CISM teams in Hawaii later this week.

Let me say that again -- Critical Incident Stress Management may well be needed later this week.  Not now.  Probably not later today.  After the tsunami hits, the damage is assessed and people can begin returning either to normal or a "new normal" it will be appropriate to address the traumatic stress.  The only thing anyone CISM trained or not should be doing for people's mental health right now is making sure they are fed and housed and that the shelter they are in is as safe as humanly possible, and then reassuring them of that.

But wait, I just said that kids in particular were probably scared.  Why shouldn't we be helping them deal with those feelings of fear?  Why shouldn't we break out the crayons and paper and start them drawing the evacuation?  Isn't early intervention a good thing?

The simple answer is that this traumatic incident isn't over.  In fact, if a tsunami does hit Hawaii, the incident has barely begun.  You can't help people process the experience of being afraid for their lives or their homes when they still have every reason to be afraid. 

CISM is designed to help people who have been traumatized, not those whose traumatization is currently in progress.  When I train school teams in CISM, I frequently tell them, "If there's a shooter in the school, I am not going to be asking you about your feelings.  I'm going to be hiding under my desk and I suggest you do the same."  Trying to process people's feelings right now is about as appropriate as going to the scene of a car accident where someone is bleeding profusely and trapped in their car and talking to them about coming to terms with their fear.  If they could deck you, they would.

In an hour or so, we'll have an idea of what Hawaii is actually dealing with.  Tomorrow I might have something to say about what CISM has to offer these folks.  For now, I just hope everyone stays safe.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tacoma School Shooting: A Threat to a Colleague is a Threat to Us All

Jennifer Paulson, a 30 year-old special education teacher in Tacoma, Washington was shot to death in the parking lot of Birney Elementary School as she arrived for work this morning.  The suspect was pulled over by police and opened fire some time later.  He was killed in the shootout.  The shooter was someone Paulson had worked with in college.  He started turning up at her work a few years ago and calling her 10 or 15 times a day, and she eventually got a restraining order against him.  Last Friday, he followed her in his car and was arrested for violating the order.  He spent the weekend in jail, made bail and was released on Monday.  Friday morning, Jennifer Paulson was dead.

When you hear the phrase "school shooting" you probably think of situations like Columbine, or even the hallway shooting at an Alabama middle school last month.  In our minds, violence at schools is carried out by students towards students, or by adults who are intent on harming children.  This case, like the shooting in Knoxville earlier this month and even the one in Littleton, Colorado earlier this week, paint a very different picture.

The fact is that, in any workplace including a school, the most likely person to murder another person is a current or former employee or an acquaintance or family member of a current employee.  People who open fire at schools for the most part do it for exactly the same reasons they do it in factories, office buildings and other places of business -- they are gunning for an adult who they know is there.  They are current employees who are dissatisfied and go after the boss, former employees taking out their revenge, family members commiting domestic violence homicides in public, and stalkers of all kinds, whether former love interests or people who think they should be love interests.  The biggest danger doesn't come from strangers, and it doesn't come from children.  It comes from the adults we know.

Paulson certainly was afraid for her own safety.  She had not been staying at home since the shooter was released from jail.  I don't know if she told her colleagues or her boss about this man and the restraining order.  I hope she did, but it wouldn't be unusual if she didn't.  Do you know if anyone at your work is being stalked or harassed?  Do you know if they have a restraining order against someone?  You should.

It's actually not as uncommon as you would think for schools in particular to need to deal with restraining orders and issues of people who may be a danger to the school community, but usually these take the form of orders against non-custodial parents, step-parents and former partners of parents.  From time to time a parent will come to school with a picture and a court order and tell us to call the police if the person pictured comes within a certain distance of their child.  If we're doing our job, we share that information with school staff and file it in the child's file for future reference.

It is even more common, however, for a parent who is either non-custodial or does not have physical custody of a child on a given day but has joint custody in general to turn up and pick up their child from school.  The next day, we hear from the other, very angry, parent demanding to know why we allowed this to happen.  They are always surprised to learn that we cannot enforce a custody arrangement that is not ordered by the court, nor can we enforce one that is ordered by the court if we don't have a copy.  We have no way of knowing that Tuesdays are always "mom's day" if they don't tell us.

Which brings us back to Jennifer Paulson and school employees like her.  Someone who is a threat to a teacher is a threat to that teacher's students and colleagues.  If they know where the teacher works, that is one of the easiest places to find her.  In my 19 years working in schools, however, I have only known of a restraining order involving a colleague once.  People are embarrassed to talk about people who are stalking or threatening them, particularly if it is someone they once had a relationship with.  But we can't be alert to the danger to them or to us and the children if we don't know, and it's naive to think that someone who would act so inappropriately in the first place would let a restraining order stop them if they wanted to do violence.

There is a lot of healing to be done at Birney Elementary School in the days ahead.  If Paulson hadn't told her colleagues about her stalker, they're going to have to come to terms with the question of whether they could have made a difference if she had.  We'll never know the answer to that.  Hopefully, this tragedy will encourage other women in similar situations to confide in their bosses and their colleagues, if not for their own safety then for everyone else's.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Seaworld Visitors Get More Than They Bargained For

A killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida grabbed his trainer's ponytail and pulled her into deep water yesterday afternoon.  Dawn Brancheau, 40, died of "multiple traumatic injuries and drowning" just after the end of an Orca Show at the park.  Sea World has indicated they will not euthanize the whale involved.  PETA has already begun using this incident as a talking point in its crusade against holding marine animals in captivity.

This is obviously a horrible tragedy for SeaWorld and for Brancheau's family and friends.  She must have known there was a risk to the work she did, but at the same time I'm sure she didn't think it would actually lead to her death.  Those who loved her were probably even less prepared.

My mind keeps drifting, however, to the spectators who were at the park yesterday.  People come literally from all over the world to the theme parks in Orlando.  These are the trips of a lifetime.  Yesterday, hundreds of families came to see the Orca show and stayed to listen to the trainer talk about the whales and how they are trained.  Hundreds of people, young and old, watched her die.

There are undoubtedly resources out there for Brancheau's family in this horrific situation.  There probably are some for her coworkers as well.  I doubt, however, that there is much being offered to the crowd that watched this happen.  Parents did not bring their children to SeaWorld yesterday expecting to expose themselves, let alone their children, to a traumatic death.  Now they are faced with trying to figure out how to calm their children's fears and answer their questions when they themselves may well be experiencing some intrusive memories and other stress symptoms from this incident.

So, how do you explain this to a child who saw it?  How do you reassure them when you are not feeling reassured yourself?  Sometimes it pays to take a step back and figure out what you imagine someone who wasn't there would say about what happened.  People tend not to do that because they feel that somehow, having witnessed the event and having been upset by it, they are not allowed to take a dispassionate view.  But dispassionate is exactly what this situation needs.

The more detached but kid-friendly explanation of what happened goes something like this:

Orcas are huge and dangerous animals.  They are called killer whales because that name suits them.  As majestic and wondeful as they are, you have to take their power seriously.  Dawn Brancheau knew that this animal was dangerous.  In fact, this is the third death in the last 20 years that this particular whale was involved with.  She had lots of training and was very careful, and that made her more safe than most of us would be around a killer whale.  But she wasn't 100% safe, and she knew that. 

This was a horrible accident, and it is very sad for her and her family.  It is also sad for the whale, who probably did not mean to do what he did.  It is very upsetting and very disturbing when something like this happens, particularly if you see it with your own eyes.  It's OK to be upset, and it makes sense if you find yourself thinking about it a lot for a few days.  Just remember that this is something that happened to Dawn Brancheau, not something that happened or will happen to us. 

People who see things like this often find it useful to talk to each other about what they saw, or to draw or write about it.  We will all take care of each other and help each other to feel safe and not so upset.  The adults will help the kids and the kids can help the adults, and in the end we will be OK.

Then, once the adults have said all this to the kids, they have one last job to do.  They need to say it again, this time to themselves.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Even Quarterbacks Need a Vacation

One of the most important things for crisis responders is to know how to take care of themselves.  In that spirit, I'll be offline as I cruise the Bahamas with my daughter and some friends this week.  I'll be posting again Thursday or Friday.   Have a great (and crisis-free!!) week.

Friday, February 19, 2010


The FBI officially ended its investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks today, after determining that a single Army scientist, acting alone, was responsible.  He suffered from significant mental illness and had worked on the vaccine against anthrax.  The letters included in the mailings, which at first blush appeared to be from a radical Muslim terrorist group, contained elaborate code that referenced two colleagues with whom he was obsessed.  There will be no arrest and no trial in this case.  The scientist the FBI says is responsible killed himself in 2008.

The mailer, as I'm sure you recall, wreaked havoc on the country, and particularly on the government and media outlets, by sending two batches of letters laced with anthrax through the postal system.  Five people died and 22 more were infected.  The majority of those infected were not targets themselves, but postal workers or people whose mail was contaminated as it passed through a contaminated facility.  Buildings were evacuated for anthrax contamination, both real and suspected, and Americans were literally frightened to touch their mail for weeks.

Given that, I suppose we should feel relief that we have gotten to the bottom of this and found that one person, who is no longer a threat to us, is responsible for the chaos of the fall of 2001.  He acted alone, he is dead, and we are not in danger.

I suspect I'm not alone, however, in finding this ending most unsatisfying.  We are used to big news stories having big conclusions.  It doesn't seem right that someone could single-handedly hold the entire country hostage, and even less right that he will never be brought to justice.  That's not how it plays out in the movies.

There is more than a need for dramatic closure in our news stories, however, driving this feeling of letdown.  There is also a sense that, although this case has been brought to an end, and with it the accompanying feeling that we are in danger from the anthrax mailer, a conclusion like this actually leaves us feeling still unnerved. 

The fact is, a single person did terrorize our country.  The fact is, if he could do it there are probably other people out there who could, too.  That makes this neither an isolated incident nor a coordinated campaign which we might be able to learn to live with, but a truly random act of violence which could occur, or not, at any time.  If there is one thing our minds do not like is unpredictable danger.  It leaves us always vaguely afraid and on edge.  In that sense, this single, seriously ill scientist has pulled off one of the most successful terrorist attacks in United States history.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Austin Plane Crash

A man with years of tax troubles and disputes with the IRS crashed a small plane into the building that houses the IRS office in Austin, Texas this morning.  Two people were injured and one is unaccounted for.  It's not clear from the current coverage what happened to the pilot, although it seems likely that he is dead.  Before crashing the plane, he had set fire to his home and left a six page letter/blog on the Internet explaining his actions.

Authorities have announced that this appears to be an isolated incident and that there is no ongoing threat.  The Department of Homeland Security released a statement that said,

We do not yet know the cause of the plane crash.  At this time, we have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity. We continue to gather more information, and are aware there is additional information about the pilot's history.
Press coverage has also emphasized the description of this as a suicide, and most outlets are referring to his writing as a suicide note and using words like "rambling" and "incoherent" to describe it.

I find this spin absolutely fascinating.  Towards the end of his letter, the pilot wrote,

It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country. . . . I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. . . . I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored.
If you read his writing all the way through (you can download it here), you will disagree with his conclusions but you will not find it hard to understand at all.  It is not incoherent.  He is very clear that he is angry at the government, why he is angry at the government, and that he is about to do this to draw attention to his grievances, cause other people to pay attention to his thinking and inspire others to also kill themselves in similar attacks.

Let's suppose you didn't know anything about this story.  Suppose someone told you that a man, angry at the United States government and believing that its citizens should rise up against it, killed himself by flying an airplane into a building housing a government office.  He left behind writing detailing his belief that the government is corrupt and encouraging others to similarly die for the cause of freedom.  What is your mental image?  Mine is not of a computer engineer.  It's of a terrorist.

So why does DHS say this isn't terrorism?  And why is the media reporting it as an incoherent suicide?  Why does it seem so important to portray this person as crazy, while others, such as the Fort Hood shooter, are terrorists? 

The practical difference is that this man has no links to any organized group that anyone can tell.  When DHS says this isn't terrorism, they really mean this isn't organized terrorism, and they are right.  There is also, frankly, and element of religious and/or racial profiling.  Terrorists are Muslim and come from the Middle East, southern Asia or Northern Africa.  Americans can't be terrorists.

The other reason it's important to us to maintain this distinction, however, is that it makes us feel safe.  We have an image of terrorists that is truly frightening and represents an ongoing danger.  The thing that keeps us from being scared out of our minds is that, for the most part, we believe them to be "over there" and not here.  Those who may be here fit a certain profile and hence are easy to catch.

This pilot, on the other hand, isn't "over there."  If he's a terrorist, then there's a much greater risk of terrorism than we would like to think about.  There is no way to keep them out, because they're already in, and there is no way to figure out who they are.  So we tell ourselves that this guy was crazy and suicidal.  We know such people exist, and even that there is some danger from them, but they don't represent anything near the threat that terrorists do.  They are isolated incidents.

A certain amount of psychological self-preservation is a reasonable thing.  We do all sorts of things to prevent ourselves from being paralyzed by fear, and that is what allows us to function.  Sometimes, however, it pays to take a step back and ask whether we are protecting ourselves from fear or simply being oblivious to the truth.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fear of Flying

Hundreds if not thousands of times a day, we make decisions that are based on the presumption that the other people around us are not crazy, hostile or violent.  From crossing the street in front of stopped traffic to sitting down in a crowded restaurant, we, by our actions, are testifying to our general faith that no one is randomly going to try to harm us. 

There is perhaps no context where that faith is more evident than on a commercial airplane.  We voluntarily confine ourselves to a small, crowded space, operated thousands of feet in the air by someone else, where if something goes wrong we really don't have a whole lot of recourse.  There is no place to run, so the person sitting next to us had better be reasonably friendly, or at least not scary, or the next few hours are going to be awful.

Two stories in the news this week have attested to this very issue.  The first concerned director Kevin Smith, who was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight after airline personnel decided he was too large to fit safely and comfortably into a coach seat.  I have no idea whether Kevin Smith can actually fit into a coach seat (although I guarantee he can't fit comfortably -- no one fits comfortably into a coach airline seat), but this has brought into focus an airline policy that exists for two reasons.  The first and more official is that packing people too tightly is a safety hazard in the event of an emergency.  The second, less official, but very real one is that the person in the next seat over does not want their space infringed by a heavy passenger next to them.  This is one of a number of policies designed by the airlines to try to prevent the person next to you from making your flight miserable.  The controversy comes when that policy is enforced to benefit one person to the complete detriment of another.

There are situations, however, that are much more obvious, which brings us to the second news story this week.  On Monday on an Air Canada flight, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney asked the passenger sitting in front of his wife to raise his seat back.  The other passenger responded by trying to hit Romney.  He was subsequently removed from the flight, which hadn't yet taken off.

Most of us who fly have hopes about the people sitting near us.  We hope they won't smell bad or talk too loud or, if we are on the aisle, have a weak bladder.  We hope they won't have offensive political views which they share loudly or use lots of profanity in front of our children, and a lot of people hope they won't be extremely large.

Our expectations are different than our hopes.  While we know we may get a seat mate of size, we absolutely expect that they will not respond to civil requests with violence.  We expect it so clearly that we don't even know we expect it, because we never think about it until that expectation is violated.  In the rare instance where someone is hostile enough to try to hurt someone for asking them to put up their seat, it has to be a little harder for the victim to get on the next plane.  As they board, they are looking at their fellow passengers with a new and more distasteful eye, hoping that whoever they get stuck sitting with not only bathed this morning, but isn't out to get them.  That doesn't make for a relaxing flight.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A New View of 9-11

Last week, ABC News released 12 photographs that were among the thousands they received in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request for pictures of the collapse of the World Trade Center.  These images, which had never been released before, were taken on September 11, 2001 from a New York Police Department helicopter.

These new images have a huge amount of power.  They are sharp and clear, and offer a new angle -- from above.  They are good photography by any standard.  As you flip through them, it is like using an old-fashioned animation flip book.  In time lapse animation, we see the towers come down.  From a dispassionate standpoint, it looks pretty cool.  Then you remember that this isn't a movie, or a planned building implosion, but an occupied building, and it isn't cool anymore.

There isn't an adult in American who hasn't seen pictures or video of the collapse before.  On some level, we think we're "over it," some more than others.  Yet there is something compelling and awful about these new pictures.  Maybe it's the new angle, maybe it's the clear sequencing, but these pictures put me back to that day more than 9 years ago in a way that little else has.  Perhaps because they are so dispassionate, they refocus the viewer on the facts -- not the politics or even the fear or anger.

I have not chosen to post any of the pictures in this space because I want you to have control over whether and when you look at them.  If you haven't yet, however, I would encourage you to.  They aren't gory, but they do pack a wallop.  If you want to understand what happened that day, I think you need to see these.  You can view them here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Alabama Shootings

On Friday, a faculty meeting at the biology department at the University of Alabama ended in gunfire.  When it was all over, three faculty members were dead and two more plus a staff assistant were wounded.  Another professor was under arrest.  Although no official theory of motive has been issued, the alleged shooter was embroiled in a particularly messy battle of the denial of her tenure.

We all carry with us an inherent understanding of where danger lurks and where it doesn't, and of which jobs are inherently dangerous and which are not.  If you are a police officer, for example, you have probably considered the possibility that you will be shot at in the course of your work.  Convenience store clerks and even toll takers consider security.  No one thinks of "professor of biology" as a dangerous profession, and most university faculty members I know consider the greatest risk at a faculty meeting to be dying of boredom.  This just isn't supposed to happen.

It is unfortunate but true that, when something like this does happen, we also have expectations for how the story will unfold.  The shooter, in our minds. is a white, middle-aged male with job issues.  He is either dead, having killed himself after the shootings, or seriously wounded either by himself or the police.  Coworkers and friends are interviewed and they  either tell us that the suspect seemed perfectly normal or that he was quirky and kept to himself, but they never imagined something like this could happen.  Further digging will turn up some kind of troubled past that could explain this behavior -- problems with mental illness, for example, or a childhood of abuse.  The suspect, if alive, pleads insanity but probably isn't found to be insane because it will turn out that he planned this for a while, showing that he was somewhat in touch with reality.  That's how these stories go.

This particular story, however, violates these expectations, plus some other ones, in some pretty significant ways.  The first issue is that the alleged shooter is female.  This is fairly unusual statistically and certainly violates our mental image.  She did have job problems, she is white and she is middle aged, but the fact that she is a woman is sufficiently surprising that early bulletins about the shooting did not say, "a suspect is in custody," as you would expect, but rather, "a female suspect is in custody."  The second issue is that not only is she alive but she is not injured.  As you would expect, coworkers and friends are saying they had no inkling that this could happen.  They say she was odd, but aren't all brilliant scientists?

When we dig into her past, things get weird.  It turns out that the suspect shot and killed her brother in 1986 in an incident that was ruled an accident even though local police said it happened during an argument.  She was also questioned briefly when she was in graduate school about a mail bomb that was sent to another biologist.  She was cleared.  It speaks to the power of our expectations that, despite this past, at least one news organization ran the headline, "Alabama Professor Showed No Hint of Violence."

This brings us to another belief we generally hold, which is that, at least in some lines of work (and professor of biology is one of them), the bad guys have been weeded out.  We know that someone could "snap" without warning.  We know that someone could be seriously disturbed.  But I doubt that any of us think that it is even remotely possible that the quirky person in the next cubicle has already killed someone and not been jailed.  This is not one of the questions you ask people at the water cooler, because it never crosses our mind that it is even a possibility.

Whenever something traumatic happens, it messes with our understanding of how the world works.  That much is a given.  This incident certainly does that for the victims and witnesses, who will have a hard time trusting colleagues again.  But it also, to a lesser extent, does it for the rest of us.  All of us know someone who is a little odd and we don't think much of it.  If they were a danger, we think, they'd have already been put away.  Now we're all looking at that person and wondering if that's true.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Would You Luge Tomorrow?

Nodar Kumaritashvili, an Olympic luger from the country of Georgia, died today after crashing during a training run in Vancouver.  He was 21.  He is the fourth athlete and only the second luger to die at a Winter Olympics.  The most recent death prior to his was in 1992 when a skiier crashed into snow grooming equipment.

If you've ever watched the luge on television, it has probably crossed your mind that there is something fairly crazy about it.  Lugers hurtle down an ice-covered track at speeds up to 90 miles per hour, on their backs.  The track twists and turns and they have to steer, although they cannot see where they are going.  This is a trade-off, in some sense, with the skeleton, in which the athletes are on their stomach and can see where they are going, but are going head first, which may or may not seem even more insane to you.

Crazy or not, there are hundreds of athletes preparing to race in the luge in Vancouver.  The men's luge is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.  If that schedule holds, it means that athletes will be sliding down the same course where Kumaritashvili died, doing exactly what he was doing when he died, just about a day after the accident.  That's awfully soon.

The effort to come to grips with this tragedy is already evident among lugers from other countries and in the press coverage of this incident.  The two main themes of this seem to be a) that the track itself is unusually dangerous and that b) Kumaritashvili was not one of the best lugers.  Choosing one or both of these themes as they process his death will have a big impact on what competing again means to these athletes.

If the track itself was unsafe, then lugers are blaming the officials in Vancouver.  There have been previous warnings and complaints, but nothing was done, and now a man is dead.  This is a relatively easy way to lay blame for Kumaritashvili's death, but it brings with it some problems.  First of all, blame is never a particularly useful tool in processing a trauma.  Assigning blame does not actually change the fact that someone is dead, and when that truth settles in all the work of dealing with that still has to happen.  Secondly, if the track is to blame, that implies that these athletes are themselves in danger.

On the other hand, if Kumaritashvili made a mistake, then lugers can tell themselves that they are better than that.  That makes it easier for them to get on the track tomorrow.  But if they knew and liked Kumaritashvili, it's pretty painful to blame him for his own death.  As much as blame isn't very useful, blaming the dead person is even less so, because you have no hope that that blame will result in a change.  The officials might fix the track.  Kumaritashvili can't un-crash his sled.

It's not unusual, after something horrible has happened, for people to want to avoid the place where it occurred, at least for a while.  For a few days or weeks, people take alternate routes in their cars after an accident or cross the street to be away from a house where a murder occurred.  I usually tell people that as long as they are still willing to go out, that fear is typical and will diminish.  Unfortunately, in this instance, the equivalent of taking an alternate route would be not competing in the Olympics, and that is also the equivalent of not going out.  I don't know how many, if any, athletes will make that choice.  But I do know that most, if not all of them, will feel at least a little distracted going down that track tomorrow.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

They're Gunning for Me

Yesterday, at Inskip Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee, shortly after school had let out early due to snow, a man shot the Principal and Assistant Principal.  One is in critical condition, the other in stable condition.  The man arrested is a 4th grade teacher at the school.  Details are starting to come out about this guy's career.  His contract was not going to be renewed next year.  His brother had a restraining order against him.  The police have a thick file of complaints that he's filed about others and that they've filed against him.  This does not appear to be a stable person.  On the other hand, he also briefly held public office when he served on a local Beer Board. 

You've often heard me write about how traumatic events interfere with our ability to distinguish what is likely from what is possible.  That certainly was the case for me when I read this story.  If you had asked me yesterday morning whether it was possible a disgruntled teacher would shoot me in my office, I would have said that I hadn't thought about it, but anything is possible. 

When I read about this shooting, however, I immediately felt unsafe.  I have made teachers unhappy and not renewed contracts.  I know there are people out there who hate me for it.  Before yesterday, I had never imagined that they could possibly come after me physically.  Now I know.

On the other hand, I know perfectly kind, decent people who have not been renewed for one reason or another.  I myself left my first teaching job under a cloud.  None of these people would possibly shoot their administrators.

What's hard to remember is that, in fact, I'm no more or less likely to be assaulted at work today than I was last week.  The risk to me, or to any other administrator in the country, has not actually changed.  What has changed is that we're aware of the possibility.  We've had a reason to contemplate a risk that we had no reason to even recognize before.  It's possible that I, and other administrators like me, under-estimated the overall danger of our jobs before yesterday, and that this incident will cause us to be more realistic.  It's much more likely, however, that our original estimates were pretty good to begin with, and this incident has caused a very unlikely thing to seem much more likely. 

In another few days this story will have passed from the news.  It won't seem so prominent in my consciousness.  I'll probably go back to feeling just as safe as I did before.  In the meantime, there are perfectly good and typical reasons why I'm feeling a little more cautious at work today.  As long as I'm able to work and the fear doesn't stick around for too long, I know I'm probably OK.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where's the Line Between Cautious and Snow Wimp?

The United States Federal Government is shut down for the third straight day today due to snow.  Washington, DC is often the butt of jokes when it snows.  They always seem surprised and completely unable to cope with even minor snowfall.  Shortly after President Obama took office he expressed great surprised that his daughters' school had closed due to "a little ice."  In short, people in the Northeast and Upper Mid-west tend to think that people in Washington are snow wimps.

Today, Washington is in the grips of the second huge snow storm of the week.  This is, by any measure, an actually large storm, not just a Washington-is-hysterical storm.  They're getting up to 16 inches on top of a couple of feet they got over the weekend.  In addition, there are high winds, making this not just a storm but a blizzard.  In response, among other things, Washington declared that it was too dangerous for plows to be on the roads this morning, and halted snow removal.

Growing up, as I did, in New England, my first reaction was to use this news as more affirmation that Washington just doesn't know how to deal with snow.  I certainly cannot remember a time when plows in Boston, Pittsburgh or Ann Arbor (the three areas where I've lived the longest) were told to stand down because it was too dangerous.  It becomes a point of pride for people from highly snowy areas that "a little snow" doesn't stop us.  How can it be too dangerous to plow?

This is really not very fair to Washington for two reasons.  The first is that this is, objectively, a pretty bad storm.  Washington is not the only jurisdiction to have pulled over its plows today.  The fact that I don't remember this happening where I was living doesn't mean it didn't, and it certainly doesn't mean it wouldn't if this same storm happened to hit literally close to home.  I can certainly remember storms where there was concern that there was literally no place to put plowed snow, and ones where the snow was so deep that plows could not easily navigate through it.

The other reason is more complicated.  The public works department of every city has to decide whether it is safe to send out their plows.  For most storms, regardless of where you live, this is pretty straightforward.  It's unlikely, however, that this is the only storm in the history of the country to at least spur the conversation about whether it is too windy to plow.  Part of this decision does have to do with how used to snow the jurisdiction is.  What seems like a "bad storm" in Washington is not necessarily a bad storm in New Hampshire.  But there's more to it than that.

In every jurisdiction, when they make the decision about whether to send out the plows, they also have to take into consideration that not sending out the plows will have a serious impact on the residents.  Being stuck at home during a snow storm isn't just an issue of closing schools, it's also an issue of public safety.  The longer folks are snowed in, the more likely there are to be medical emergencies, and those emergencies will have trouble getting to the hospital.  If this is a one-time, unusual instance, it may well be a risk worth taking given the risk of sending out the plows. 

If you live someplace where you are making this decision not twice a year but two or three times a week throughout the winter months, however, your decision is never truly an isolated one.  If you decide not to send out the plows today, you are also setting the precedent that you will not send out the plows anytime there is a storm like this one.  That's fine if the storm really is an unusual event, but if it's going to happen a lot there's going to be a problem.  Washington can afford to shut down for a week.  If Boston does, it's running the risk that that week will keep coming, week after week.

So, does that mean that Washingtonians really aren't snow wimps?  Probably not.  It does mean, however, that today isn't necessarily and example of it.  Everyone has to assess whether risks are worth it every day.  It's OK for us to come up with different answers.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Religion and CISM and Public Schools

Last week, after a 9th grader shot another in the back of the head in Madison, Alabama, the mayor of Madison urged people to pray for the victim and the students at the school.  Local churches sent counselors.  The city and the school system worked with local clergy as well as crisis responders to provide support for those affected. 

To some extent, there is a great divide in this country with regards to the role of churches and clergy in situations like this one.  In the South, in poorer communities, and in heavily African-American communities you are much more likely to see churches stepping up to offer support.  In the North, particularly in affluent northern White communities, this is less common.  Where you fall in these groupings probably has a lot to do with how you feel about this practice. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am White and have only worked in northern schools, although of varying degrees of poverty and varying racial demographics. So, do I think this is a good idea?  Like most things, it depends.  But I certainly think it can be if it's done well. 

The potential problem, of course, comes in trying to do an effective job of meeting people's spiritual needs in a public school setting.  I say it's a potential problem because I have seen it done both really well and really poorly.  I think we can all imagine what doing it poorly might look like.  Students come for counseling and are greeted by someone who tells them the deceased is going to hell, or to heaven, or that they should adopt that person's faith to find comfort.  Not only is this bad from a constitutional standpoint, it's not good crisis response.  This is not a good time to proselytize, and offering simple platitudes often turns out to be much less comforting than people think.

When this sort of work is done well, it is done by lay or clergy-people who have been specially trained both as chaplains and as crisis responders.  They understand the psychological process that people are going through as well as the spiritual need.  A good chaplain will follow the lead of the person they are talking to in exploring the role of faith in their thinking.  They will answer questions about God with questions about what the person themself believes.  They will offer prayer only when asked, and yes, they will be asked.  It is this training that allows chaplains of one denomination to serve in the military, hospitals or prisons and assist people with a wide array of beliefs.  They are not faith dictators, they are faith facilitators.
Every community and every culture in the world has particular expectations for the role of religion and the clergy in their lives.  If, as seems likely, that role is very prominent in Madison, Alabama, it would be wrong not to involve the religious community in supporting the children.  Furthermore, people who have experienced trauma often find themselves with strong spiritual needs, either because they want comfort or because they have serious spiritual or theological questions.  A good chaplain can help with that.  As with anything in a crisis, however, it's important that everyone knows exactly what their job is and how to do it, and sticks to that.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mass Casualties from Kleen Energy Explosion

There was a massive explosion at a Kleen Energy Services gas power plant under construction in Middletown, Connecticut at about 11 o'clock this morning.  Most recent reports suggest a gas leak may have been the cause, and that there were about 50 people working at the plant at the time.  Police officials said that this was a "mass casualty event."

If you don't do this sort of thing for a living, the term "mass casualty event" probably sounds pretty bad.  It probably sounds pretty bad if you do do this sort of thing for a living, too, but in a different way.  Most of us, when we hear "casualty" think "death," but of course that's incorrect.  Casualties include people who have been injured as well as people who have been killed.  A mass casualty event (MCE) is an incident that is of sufficient size that it will stress the first response and health-care system locally.  Different jurisdictions define how big something has to be to qualify as an MCE, and that also takes into account the capabilities of local responders.

Local hospitals in and around Middletown are reported to have activated their disaster plans.  On the face of it, this may sound odd.  We think of disasters as being earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and the like.  For the purposes of responding to them, however, there really isn't a big difference between a massive accident and a massive tornado.  If you work in the ER, you don't particularly care how all these people got hurt, but just that they did and how many of them there will be.  A disaster plan enables the hospital (or whoever) to plan for a situation that is going to tax their capacity.  It defines who does what when it's "all hands on deck."

Being injured in a mass casualty event as well as responding to one can have slightly different stressors.  The biggest difference that most people notice right away is the use of triage.  Responders have to choose who will get care first, and that means some people are going to have to wait.  If you are injured when your car hits a tree, for example, you are going to get the full attention of first responders.  If you are in a 50 car pileup, you will only get first attention if you are the most injured person that rescuers think has a chance of survival.  Anyone who has ever gone to the emergency room on a busy day has experienced triage.  You may be having the worst emergency of your life, but as long as someone else is having a worse one, you have to wait.

The triage involved in MCE's can become a predictable theme when responders and survivors work with crisis intervention personnel.  Survivors express the fear and frustration of being seriously injured and having first responders walk right by them without helping.  Responders report the horror of seeing multiple people in serious pain and having to leave them as they are rather than help.  There is nothing quite like having to step over a dying person without offering even comfort in order to save someone else.  These are choices none of us, even the highly trained, are used to making.

It will be a while before we know the full extent of the injuries at Kleen Energy.  That's also one of the hallmarks of an MCE -- helping comes before counting the people who need help.  As the dust begins to settle, this will be a big job for a CISM team, who will need to move in and help everyone recover from the difficult choices that had to be made today.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Living the Nightmare at Discovery Middle School

At about 1:45 this afternoon, a 9th grader at Discovery Middle School in Madison, Alabama pulled out a gun in the middle of a crowded hallway and shot fellow 9th grader Todd Brown in the head.  Brown is in critical condition, and the other student is in custody.  No information about a possible motive has been released.  The news coverage of this event provides an interesting view into how schools respond in a crisis and how things actually unfold.  It is also notable for what is missing from the coverage.

From the reporting, we can gather the following:  When the shooting occurred, other students ran into nearby classrooms.  At least one of those classrooms had a substitute teacher who did not have keys to lock the door.  I can say as an administrator that this is a real problem in schools.  Ideally, everyone who unlocks a classroom door, whether the regular teacher, the sub using a borrowed key, the custodian or anyone else, ought to leave the door so that it locks when it is closed.  However, few people do because they don't remember, don't think it's important, and students and colleagues can't come and go from the classroom if the door is closed without the teacher having to constantly let people in.

After the crowd scattered, the school went into lockdown.  The purpose of this is twofold -- to make sure that everyone is accounted for and the shooter has limited access to other victims, and to keep people out of the way of emergency personnel.  Few people think of it, but you might well put a school into lockdown if a child had a medical emergency in the hallway, too.  The school nurse and the school resource officer (a police officer stationed in the school) were there within seconds.  Emergency personnel were on scene within 3 minutes of the shot, which is one of the advantages of a school being directly across the street from a fire station. 

By this point, the kids who were in the classrooms were already texting each other to find out what everyone knew about what had happened.  They were also texting their parents, who can be seen in the news photo above waiting anxiously outside the school.  The days when information control was in the hands of the person who had access to the PA system are long gone.  The school was able to start releasing students approximately half an hour after the shooting, which is phenomenally fast and speaks to the efficiency with which everyone involved was working.

Here's what isn't in the coverage, but what is almost certainly true.  The shooter almost certainly has a disciplinary record, a truancy record or had already come to the attention of the administration.  If his target was not chosen at random, then chances are the victim also has a backstory.  In my experience, when horrible things happen involving kids, no matter how random it may seem, there is a 9 out of 10 chance that there is something about the child, their family, history or background that makes the situation less simple than it appears.

Also, unless the victim was chosen at random, many people at the school know what the motive was.  The fact that it's not being reported doesn't mean no one knows, it means they've been told not to tell.  There is no way this happened in a crowded hallway between two students who knew each other without either a witness or someone else connected to the people involved knowing why this happened.

The Principal at Discovery Middle School, any other administrators, and the counselors or other crisis team members have had a terrible day.  Chances are good that, while they have been busy setting up counseling for the students, no one has yet checked in on how they themselves are doing.  Chances are also good that they are not cutting themselves any slack or making sure that they take care of themselves.  This is the nature of this type of incident and of people in this kind of position.  We are trained to care for kids, but we're horrible at caring for ourselves and each other.

Even if the administrators and crisis responders are getting a little TLC, there's about a 85% chance that no one has looked in on the secretary, or even noticed what her day was like.  She spent the afternoon fielding panicked phone calls, fearing for her own safety and getting barked at by just about everyone.  She had a lot of the responsibility of coordinating the situation, but probably much less information or control than her superiors.  If there was a staff meeting to discuss the days' events, she probably was not invited.

Obviously I am speculating about the shooter, the victim and the staff at the school.  I have no actual information.  For all I know, these folks were just as well prepared for the aftermath of the day as they were for the immediate response.  What I can say is that if that is true, it is unusual.  Unless you've had the misfortune to go through something like this several times, there are lessons that you just haven't learned yet.  It's unfortunate that anyone has to learn them at all.

Update:  The victim, Todd Brown, died on Friday evening at about 8 PM.  The shooter has been charged with murder.
Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Is It About Shark Attacks?

Stephen Schafer, 38, was killed while kiteboarding in Florida yesterday.  He was attacked by sharks, apparently at least 2 of them.  A lifeguard was able to reach him and pull him to safety while he was still alive and conscious, but he lost consciousness before they reached shore and was pronounced dead at a local hospital.  This story made all of the national news outlets and some international ones today, and was the most popular story on Google News.

What is it about this story that is so compelling?  It's not just this one -- there have been a number of instances over the years where fatal or near-fatal shark attacks made national headlines.  Discovery Channel sponsors "Shark Week" on a regular basis, with a lot of time devoted to shark attacks.  "Jaws" is now so much a part of our culture that even people who have never seen it know about it.  We are fascinated by the danger of sharks.

The fact of the matter is that fatal shark attacks are really rare.  The most fatal shark attacks in a single year ever recorded was 16 in 2000.  Less than 5 fatalities a year is more typical.  Shark attack fatalities in Florida are even more unusual.  Since 1990, there have only been a total of 5 deaths in Florida.  Clearly our fascination with shark  attacks is not because they represent a major danger to us in our daily lives, even if we swim in the ocean quite a bit.

I would suggest that what pulls us in about stories like this one is the interaction between humans and animals.  In most places in the world, people do not put themselves in situations where dangerous animals can randomly attack them.  Few of us, for example, go hang out near a pack of lions.  If someone is killed by a lion, therefore, we don't really identify with the risk that person took. 

Sharks, however, are different.  We willingly place ourselves in the ocean with some frequency.  When someone is attacked by a shark, we can imagine that it could happen to us, and we are alarmed by the appearance that there isn't much we can do to avoid it.  It's a random risk that we take when we swim.

The death of Mr. Schafer is awful, and that rarity and awfulness is also part of what makes the story sensationalistic.  I just hope we don't lose sight of reality while we're remarking on this incident.  The chances of this happening to us -- to anyone -- are incredibly small.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Toyotaphobia Sweeps the Nation

If you've been in a completely non-industrialized part of the world for the last month or two, you might have missed that Toyota has recalled about 9 million vehicles due to unintended acceleration problems and problems with pedals getting caught in floor mats.  They have also stopped manufacturing or selling the affected models until a fix can be put in place.  This is disastrous news for a company that has built its business on reliability.

Pundits have been all over the news discussing Toyota's future.  On Marketplace this afternoon, one commentator said that it can take an entire generation -- 20 years or so -- for a company to recover from a problem like this.  The host commented that an informal poll around the office showed that no one was going to buy the Toyotas even after they were fixed.

I understand why the brand has taken a hit.  I understand that you can't turn a profit if you can't manufacture and sell your product.  What seems unreasonable, however, is the sheer level of fear this is causing people.

Based on the mass anti-Toyota feelings around the country, you might think that hundreds or even thousands of people have been seriously injured or killed in accident involving these defects.  People are treating their Toyotas as if they might turn on them at any moment, so the actual numbers involved might surprise you.  For the floor mat problem, the NTSB has identified 2 incidents that caused 5 deaths.  For the accidental acceleration problem, the NTSB has identified no fatalities at all.  Other organizations say there have been 2,000 incidents with 19 deaths in the acceleration defect.  So, at worst, we're talking about 24 deaths over up to 10 years.

I don't mean to discount the tragedy that has befallen the families and loved ones of these 24 people.  Any traumatic death is awful, particularly when it is avoidable.  I wouldn't be in this line of work if it weren't.  You might feel that this number of deaths represent an unacceptable risk.  If you do, it might be time for a little reality check.  More than 43,600 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2006.  If Toyotas present a completely unacceptable risk to the point that you will never drive one again, then, you probably shouldn't be driving at all, since driving itself is much, much more risky than any one brand.

We are sucked into this recall and its hype because it's Toyota and because it affects so many cars and hence so many consumers.  Certainly if we can avoid another 24 deaths in these vehicles, we should.  We shouldn't, however, confuse a big story with a big risk.  We do riskier things than drive a Toyota every day.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mourning the Ones at Fault

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held its final hearing today on the investigation of the crash of Continental Flight 3407 near Buffalo almost a year ago.  The investigation revealed that the crash was almost entirely due to errors by the flight crew.  They found that the pilot talked almost continuously through the flight, that the pilot and first officer were not alert to what was going on with the flight and that they did not act as their training had taught them to when the engine stalled.  They also specifically said that there was time for the crew to act, and they did not.

Most of the families of the victims of this crash sat up front during today's hearing, all wearing red as a symbol of their united front.  Families in these instances say that it is very important for them to know exactly what happened and why, and now they have their answer.  They also have someplace to place their anger, since what appeared to be random or caused by the weather was caused by the crew.

There was at least one family not sitting in the front, not dressed in red at today's hearing, and for them the issue of who is to blame is much more complicated.  Lynn Morris and Troy Shaw sat towards the back.  They are the mother and husband, respectively, of Rebecca Shaw, who also died on flight 3407.  She was the first officer.

It's hard enough when your loved one dies.  Harder still when they die a traumatic death.  But to learn that they were at fault, and that 50 people died because of their mistake, is incredibly complicated.  Who is Shaw's mother supposed to be mad at?  How can you be as mad at your family member as the other victims are and still love them?  That tension is incredibly hard.

Morris gave an interview to KIRO, a local TV station near where she lives in Washington state.  She said,
My heart is saying I would like there to be a reason I could understand and make sense of for all this and I'm not getting that sense of peace.
We can hardly blame her for wishing that this investigation had turned out differently.  Sometimes the truth is awfully hard to hear.

There probably isn't much anyone can say that will make this situation easier for the families of the crew.  I commend NTSB chair Deborah Hersman for trying, however.  At today's hearing, she commented,
As we speak about the flight crew, we remember that we’re talking about individuals. The actions in the last minutes of their lives are not representative of the whole of their lives.
Maybe that will give their families just a little glimpse of some peace.

Monday, February 1, 2010

It Hurts Us More Than it Hurts Them

A brief update from the Associated Press alerted us today that the Stepping Stones Childcare Center on the north side of Indianapolis has reopened.  You may recall that an SUV driven by two robbery suspects crashed into the front room of the center in December, critically injuring one child and injuring three others and a staff member less seriously.  Repairs are complete and all of the injured children are expected to return to the center now that it has reopened.

There is something very powerful about returning to the place where something traumatic occurred.  Depending on where you are in your healing process, going to the scene of the incident can be very distressing, or it can be a sign of victory over the fear that the incident caused.  The children who witnessed the accident or were hurt in it, in this case, are three years old and may not really remember the details of what happened unless someone has talked to them about it quite a bit.  The residual effects of the crash for these kids, if there are any, are less likely to come in the form of being afraid of the space where it happened and more likely to come in the form of an overall anxiety about their safety.

The adults -- both the staff and the parents -- are another story.  They remember what happened and some of them undoubtedly were really affected by it.  Those who witnessed the accident might feel triggered by working in that space again.  Hopefully, all of the staff have had a chance to be in there without the kids before today's opening.

In my experience, most parents bringing their kids back to school after something frightening has happened and been resolved are OK with it.  Some may feel a little anxious, but they also are able to tell themselves that their fears aren't really rational -- the chances of another SUV crashing through the wall are very small.  Those who are more anxious, however, don't usually come right out and say it.  What they do say is that their child is anxious, and often the child is.  The parent in these cases has talked to the child in a way that interferes with both of their natural processing of the event.  A parent might say to a child, for example,
Daycare is opening back up on Monday.  You know, it's been closed because of that scary accident where all those kids got hurt, remember?  That was really frightening.  It's going to be really frightening to go back, isn't it.

Before you accuse me of exaggerating, I must tell you that I have heard conversations similar to this many times between parents and kids.  The parent will tell you that she is just acknowledging their child's fears, but in fact they are planting their own fears in their child.  They are telling their child not just that they accept their feelings, but that they expect them to be scared.  Children are pretty good at living up to our expectations.

Acknowledging children's feelings sounds a little different than that example.  A parent who is responding rather than influencing might say,
Daycare is opening back up on Monday.  It's been closed for a long time.  How do you think you'll feel when you go back?
Now the door is open for the child to say something if she's feeling anxious, but also allowing for the possibility -- even the probability -- that the child will be happy going back. 

Anxious parents make for anxious children, and in a situation like this the adults are probably a lot more concerned than the kids.  After a traumatic incident, we need to make space for kids to be impacted.  We also need to remember to make space for them to be fine.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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