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.


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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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