Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's Only a Joke if Everyone Thinks It's Funny

On April 15, a 7-year-old girl in Stevensville, Montana was walking along the sidewalk when a man in a car yelled, "I'm going to kidnap you!"  Police were called, and the girl helped a sketch artist create a picture of her assailant.  Flyers were posted around town, and on Monday an 18-year-old man turned himself in, and today he pled guilty to disorderly conduct and was given a $185 fine and a 10 day suspended jail sentence.  He says he was just joking when he shouted at the girl.

This is not a big story.  It merited three paragraphs in the Associated Press today, and nothing when it originally happened.  It lies on a continuum, somewhere between stories of kids walking along the sidewalk uneventfully and kids being kidnapped off the sidewalk.  The sentence here clearly takes into consideration the man's intent.  He did not intend to kidnap the girl, just to scare her, and the sentence reflects that.  The AP headline,

Montana Teen Fined for Trying to Scare 7-year-old
also reflects the man's intentions. 

Our legal system cares about intent.  That's why attempted murder is different than assault.  Possession with intent to distribute is different than possession.  Hate crimes carry a different punishment than other crimes because of what motivated them.  On the whole, Americans accept that what you were trying to do when you committed a crime matters.  We therefore understand that there's a big difference between threatening to kidnap someone because you think you're being funny and threatening to kidnap someone because you're actually going to try.

But should it be this way?  Imagine you're a 7-year-old girl, walking down the street, and a man yells that he's going to kidnap you.  You run, someone calls the police, they start looking for the man.  In terms of how scared you are, is there any difference at all between someone trying to be funny and yelling this at you and someone who actually was going to kidnap you yelling it?  Will you have fewer nightmares, less regression in your behavior, and fewer fears from one than the other?  Of course not.

Clearly scaring a little kid like this is not the same as actually kidnapping her.  There is and should be a continuum.  The notion that we take into account intent, however, should be recognized for what it is -- a cultural construct.  Our system has decided to punish people based on intent.  Another system might punish based on the effect of one's actions.  There are pros and cons for each, and each will have some citizens who are more comfortable with it than others.

Several times a month, on the playground or in my office, I wind up talking to a child or a group of children who have been "play-fighting."  The difference between play-fighting and actual fighting, in terms of actions, is basically zero.  These are usually younger kids, and often the playing ends with a bloody nose or someone in tears.  All of them are baffled.  "We were just playing."  Similarly, I wind up talking to older kids who have said some really vile things to each other and someone has gotten mad.  "It was just a joke."  I hope, while I still have some sway over them, they learn some simple lessons:  when someone gets hurt, they are still hurt whether you meant to hurt them or not, and something's only a joke if both the speaker and the listener think it's funny.  Obviously, this young man never got the message.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Death in NYC: Can Empathy and Condemnation Go Hand in Hand?

Several years ago, a teacher in my school district, at a different school, was disciplined for using duct tape to fasten a student to a chair.  The day after this hit the newspaper, the staff room was abuzz with teachers saying, "What was she thinking?"  "I can't imagine what she was thinking." "Does anyone know what she was thinking?"  There was a lull in the conversation, and one of the most senior teachers said, "Let's be honest.  Is there anyone who actually doesn't know what she was thinking?"

I am reminded of this episode today because an item has hit the news regarding a homeless man who was killed in New York City a week ago.  Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, 31, was stabbed as he intervened in an early morning altercation between a man and a woman on a Queens sidewalk-- some reports say it was a mugging.  In a scene captured by a surveillance camera, Tale-Yax then walked down the sidewalk, collapsed, and  lay there for about an hour as numerous pedestrians walked by.  One took a picture of him.  Another shook him and lifted him up far enough to see a pool of blood.  By the time authorities arrived, he was dead.

What were those passersby thinking?  You may find yourself reminded of the storied case of Kitty Genovese, the woman who was stabbed to death in 1964 outside a Queens apartment building.  Her death became symbolic of people's uncaring attitude towards others, after it was reported that the killer returned for three separate assaults, 38 people had witnessed the attack, and no one had called the police. Forty-five years from now will be we be talking about the Tale-Yax case in the same way we talk about Kitty Genovese?

It turns out, however, that the Genovese case wasn't all that simple.  In their recent book SuperFreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner argue that the attack on Kitty Genovese was not witnessed by as many people as reported, not as obviously a murder in progress as reported, and in fact at least one person did call the police.  There were two attacks, not three, and they were in two different locations.  Several people did yell out their windows to the killer to leave her alone, and, when they did, he appeared to leave and she appeared to get up.  They thought it was over.  Is it possible that the Tale-Yax case also has some shades of gray?

I think we can all agree that, in an ideal world, anyone who knew he was injured should have tried to help him and/or called 911.  So, why didn't they?  Did Mr. Tale-Yax have the misfortune to be injured in the one place in America where everyone doesn't agree on this?  Probably not.

When we say that people should have called, we are doing so with much better information than people had at the time.  We know now that Mr. Tale-Yax was dying, and that failure to call an ambulance probably cost him his life.  The people walking by, on the other hand, were not met with that certainty.  They had to weigh out the probability that this man needed help against the chances that he didn't, and also the chances that if they tried to help him they would wind up regretting it.

At least some of the pedestrians presumed that Mr. Tale-Yax was asleep.  The sight of a homeless man sleeping -- or passed out -- on the sidewalk in Queens is not that unusual.  It is certainly far more common than someone bleeding to death on a sidewalk in Queens.  These people weighed the probabilities and went with the one that was far more likely.

Other passersby, though, clearly knew he was hurt.  The person who shook him and picked him up certainly did.  The person who took his picture appears to talk with a companion about the situation before they leave.  We all assume that we, in the same situation, would have called 911.  Why didn't they?

First of all, somebody did.  There were a total of three 911 calls.  The first, which appears to have come during the initial altercation, reported a woman screaming but gave the wrong address.  The second reported a man lying in the street and also gave the wrong address.  The third brought emergency personnel, who found Mr. Tale-Yax dead.

Let's just say, however, for the sake of argument, that there was at least one person who walked by, saw Tale-Yax, realized he was injured, and didn't call.  Should they be condemned for it?  Or can we muster some empathy for them?  I think the answer may be both. 

Someone failed to help a dying person.  That can't be OK in our society.  At the same time, I can imagine 100 reasons why they didn't, from being a wanted criminal or an undocumented immigrant themselves, to simply failing to grasp what they were seeing, to convincing themselves that if he was really hurt someone would have already called.  Think about it -- have you ever seen a car on the side of the road and not called for help?  You probably have -- I know I have -- because you figured someone else had already called.

Empathizing with the passersby does not require condoning what they did.  Understanding and accepting are not the same thing.  We know that the people who walked by Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax should have helped him.  Chances are, they know it too. And really, if we think about it, is there anyone who doesn't know what they were thinking?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mama Bears Comment on a School Fight

On Tuesday, a sixth grader at Heritage Elementary School in Saline, Michigan, south of Ann Arbor, was rushed to the hospital after a fight on the playground.  He was unconscious and having convulsions.  It appears that he was pushed from behind and possibly kicked by two or three other students while other children watched.

This story hit the news this morning, and I've already had it emailed to me by more than one parent.  People are upset by the story, and they are also upset by the comments they see posted by readers of the story.  These comments can be divided into a few major categories:

Category 1: What is the world coming to?

This behavior is beocming [sic] an everyday event. What has happened to our children? They are violent and seem to have little respect for life. The bigger question is, why are grade schoolers beating another child to a point that a child is put into a hospital? What are they thinking? What are their parents doing? Who is teaching humanity?
Category 2: It's no different than it always was.

NEWSFLASH- Children fight on playgrounds! Please where did you people grow up. Saline grad here k-12, and a playground fight is not really news. I've seen a student knocked out before and plenty of fights. As children age it tapers off- more fights in younger grades but they don't knock each other out. There is no one to blame -its called growing up, and its the same in every public school.
Category 3:  It's the school's fault.

What has the school done to protect him? How come there was no teacher in sight? Maybe the first punishment was not strong enough to show the previous and current attackers that the school is serious about protecting students in school and that their acts would not be tolerated at all.  All these questions need to be answered by the School principle [sic], obviously he/she failed to have any adequate planning in protecting the kids at school. The previous punishment failed to send a clear message to all students about bullying other fellow students at school that it will not be tolerated under any circumstances. This should not be brushed easily aside, we need answers and responsible people to provide education and safety for our kids in Michigan schools. Unless this is properly addressed, it will most likely be repeated.

None of these commenters, as far as I can tell, have any more information about the incident than the sketchy details from the news article, but they all are making assumptions about what happened before, during and/or after this incident.  Some of the parents who are emailing me, furthermore, want to know what we are "doing about this" at our school, in a different town and a different district.  Why is this eliciting these reactions?

This story has all the makings of a triggering event -- one with which people have strong emotional associations.  It took place in a setting that almost everyone has experience with -- a school playground.  For we Ann Arborites, it took place not too far away.  It involves school violence which, on some level, we all also had experience with. 

Perhaps most importantly, this incident not only involves children, but it involves children in a setting where their parents are particularly powerless.  We can watch our kids at the mall or the grocery store or our own yard, but when we drop them off at school we have to trust that they are going to be OK.  When something happens that indicates that kids are not safe at school, we parents become like mama bears protecting their cubs.  Don't mess with us.

The categories of comments on the news article indicate where people's anxieties and biases -- about the world, their children and schools -- already were before they read the article.  If you firmly believed that school personnel were somewhat incompetent yesterday, then when you read about this today you saw evidence of that.  If you believed that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket, here's your proof.  And if you yourself were a fighter and turned out OK, or if you deal with the fact that you can't protect your kids at school by telling yourself you don't have to, you'll say that kids will be kids.

Who knows what the backstory on this incident is.  Did the child have an undiagnosed medical condition?  How long did the fight last?  Who was the aggressor, and what previous problems have they had?  I know from having my own school incidents covered in the press that there is always, no matter what, some side of the story that does not make the paper and which I think is very important to understanding the whole picture.  In the end, however, these comments aren't about the whole picture and they're barely about this incident.  They're about the people who write them, and we can tell a lot about the authors just by reading them.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Everyday Crises We Can't Prevent

Yesterday afternoon we had a perfect storm at my school.  The secretary was out sick.  The clerk is in China.  The lead teacher was out of the building.  The nurse and all of the special education staff were in a meeting.  One of the teacher's assistants, the one who works with our most medically fragile students, was picking up her ill child from another school.  I was in my office with my boss having my evaluation conference.  It's hard to imagine a worse time for a student to have a seizure in the lunch room.

In all likelihood, there were probably a total of 90 seconds between the start of the seizure and when I got there.  The nurse was 30 seconds behind me.  In this day and age, we were lucky she was even in the building -- she is only there one and a half days a week.  Had everyone been in their usual places, it might have shaved 30 seconds off the entire thing.  Those extra 30 seconds, of course, felt like an eternity to the lunchroom staff, and probably sounded like an eternity to the family when we spoke to them.

This child has a known seizure disorder and a written plan for what to do.  I won't say my adrenalin didn't kick in at all when I started heading for the lunch room, but I will say I wasn't scared.  We had a plan, the nurse was on her way, and I knew this child was susceptible to seizures.  Stuff happens.

Once the nurse had taken over, I looked around at the lunchroom staff and realized that my reaction was not the same as theirs.  The one who had first noticed the student seizing was beside herself wondering if she had done the right thing.  Another one told me her brother, who died a couple of years ago, had died during a seizure.  Most of them just were not at all convinced that this child was going to be ok.  They work at the school 2 hours a day.  They've never encountered this child having a seizure before, and it triggered all sorts of emotions for them, as you might expect.  Those of us who have seen this before felt much better than they did.

I went back to my office and called the family.  Then I returned to my evaluation conference, and joked with my boss that there must be somewhere on that evaluation form to notate that in fact that had gone pretty well.

We spend a lot of time and energy preventing things from happening in schools, from shootings to fires to kids tripping over their shoelaces.  At the end of the day, however, you can't prevent everything.  And while we couldn't prevent this seizure, we could make sure we were ready, and we can go back and review how everything unfolded and tweak our procedures.  But even with these relatively "little" incidents, it's important to remember that, to someone on staff, this may not be little at all.  Someone's brother died.  Someone felt incompetent.  When it's over, it's important to support them, too, and review to see how you might have protected them from the trauma -- with a small "t."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Running a School in a Post-Columbine World

Quick, where were you 11 years ago today?  Don't remember?  I'll bet you do.  April 20, 1999 may not stick in your mind, but the name of what happened that day almost certainly does:  Columbine.  Eleven years ago, 12 students and a teacher were killed by two other students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in a planned attack.  The shooters killed themselves at the end of the attack.

I was on maternity leave and caring for a sick husband the day of the Columbine shooting.  I remember watching for agonizing hours as authorities attempted to evacuate the building, not sure if the shooters were dead or alive or even if they might be trying to escape by evacuating with other students.  The picture of students running out of doors with their hands in the air is still very vivid in my mind.

Columbine was not the first school shooting of that era, but it was the deadliest.  Columbine was the shooting that became the shorthand for school shootings.  Within weeks, those of us who work in schools were using the word "Columbine" to mean a school shooting that was preplanned and directed at the school as a whole or a certain list of people, but not at one individual.  Every school started looking at whether it was ready for "a Columbine," and whether it was equipped to prevent one.

So what does it mean to be the Principal of a school in a post-Columbine era?  That really depends on the school, and it really depends on how much perspective you are able to put on the threat.  On the one hand, there are still those who view school violence as something that happens in inner cities and poor neighborhoods, despite all kinds of evidence that in fact major violence is much more likely to happen in suburbs and be perpetrated by the affluent.  To these folks, anything a rich, suburban school does for security is overkill.  On the other hand, there are those who regard every troubled kid not only as a potential shooter, but as an actual one, and go wild suspending and expelling kids who desperately need mental health treatment and are not the slightest bit violent.  These folks forget that the vast majority of kids who are troubled are no threat at all, and they completely ignore the fact that disgruntled employees, angry parents and estranged spouses and significant others are also a major source of violence in schools.

There is probably a level of school security which would make absolutely certain that no weapons ever get into a school building and that no violent adult does either.  There would still be fistfights, because you can't ban fists, but little else would be likely to happen.  So why don't we?

Mostly we don't turn our schools into fortresses because we want kids to be relaxed and comfortable.  Kids under perpetual lockdown are prisoners, not students.  They are reminded every second of every day that no one trusts them, and they often live down to that expectation.  What's more, any violence that might otherwise happen inside the school is put under pressure and will someday explode, and while that may happen outside the school it may also be worse than it would have been.  We would have done nothing to prevent it, because the only thing that truly prevents it is an environment where kids trust adults enough to tell them what's going on in their lives and tell an adult when a friend is doing something dangerous.

So, we try to pay attention to who is coming into the building.  We lock the secondary entrances.  We stop strangers in the hallways.  We practice "lockdowns," which are now required by Michigan law the same way fire drills and, this being the midwest, tornado drills are.  And the rest of the time, we go about our business -- helping children learn -- and make sure we're listening to them in the meantime.  I am reminded of a line from the movie Finding Nemo, when the overprotective Marlin says that he promised his son he'd never let anything happen to him.  Dory, the ditsy sidekick, responds,
You can't never let anything happen to him.  Then nothing would ever happen to him.
In the post-Columbine era, school safety and security is about balancing the need to be safe with the need, well, to be.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Death on Patriots' Day

Today is April 19, and it is a very important day in the history of the United States.  Most people around the country remember this date as the anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people died.  For those of us born and raised in the great town of Concord, Massachusetts, however, April 19 is Patriots' Day, a state holiday commemorating the beginning of the American Revolution with the battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775.

Patriots' Day is part of the fabric of my childhood.  As a young child, one of my earliest vivid memories was of waking in the wee hours of the morning to go to the dawn cannon salute for the American bicentennial.  For us, the bicentennial was in 1975, not 1976.  Every year we went downtown for the Patriots' Day parade.  Reenactors recreated the battles of the day, and still do.  To me, a flag with 13 stars in a circle was completely normal.  I was horrified recently to discover that my daughter wasn't quite sure what happened on April 19, and what year it happened.  I haven't lived in Massachusetts for 19 years, but it still doesn't feel quite right to have school on April 19.

Frequent Quarterbacker Abe is an 18th century reenactor who lives in Concord.  He and his family are part of a French regiment in neighboring Sudbury, although of course on April 19 they do not reenact as French because the French had not joined the war yet.  He also happens to be my brother.

This evening, Abe forwarded along a story that certainly jumped out at him and jumped out at me as well.  Early this morning, as the reenactors of the Bedford (Massachusetts) Minutemen marched the five or so miles from Bedford to the Old North Bridge in Concord, 61 year-old Neil Hill collapsed of a heart attack and was pronounced dead at the hospital.  Abe writes,

Can you imagine marching in a parade after experiencing this?  We actually saw the ambulance come through the center of town, although of course we didn't know that's why it was coming.
Oddly, my first reaction to this death was that it somehow desecrated the Patriots' Day celebration.  My gut reaction was, "People aren't supposed to die on Patriots' Day."  On the face of it, this actually makes no sense at all.  Of course people die on Patriots' Day.  First of all, people die every day.  Second, this celebration commemorates a battle.  The notion that people aren't supposed to die on a day dedicated to a war is a little silly.  At the same time, I think my feeling is understandable.  Patriots' Day is part of my childhood, and, like many things from our childhoods, I have idealized it.  In the perfect celebration of my youth -- or my imagination -- people didn't die.

Abe's reaction is also understandable, and really another side of the same coin. If you are an 18th century reenactor in Massachusetts, today is the biggest day of the year. Presumably, you do reenactments because they are fun and interesting, and today is more fun and more interesting than many. For someone to die on April 19 adds a dose of real life to an otherwise joyous and highly symbolic occasion. Somehow having a parade doesn't seem right. At the same time, however, the parade goes on in part out of a realization that while years from now people may still remember who died today, their significance will more likely lie in their life than their death. I hope that day comes sooner rather than later for the Bedford Minutemen and the family of Neil Hill.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The State Funeral Without the State

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were buried today in Krakow, just over a week after the plane on which they were traveling went down in the fog in Russia.  Usually, when a head of state dies, other world leaders, or at least their designees, attend the funeral.  Not this time.  Many leaders were unable to attend due to the difficulties with air travel in Europe caused by the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, a volcano in Iceland which has sent ash into the skies over the continent and halted air travel in countries to the north.  Leaders of the United States, France and Germany were among those who canceled their plans to fly to Poland to pay tribute to the Kaczynskis.

One of the feelings that people often report following a traumatic incident is a sense of disbelief that the world is continuing about its business when something so awful has happened.  When you are feeling completely stopped in your tracks, it's easy to expect, on some level, that everyone else will be, too.  This feeling is only stronger when an event has affected a lot of people, or even a whole country, as it has in this case.  I remember distinctly the feeling that, after 9-11, it was fitting that there be no air travel.  It wasn't just about security, it was that no one should move when the world had gone so crazy.

In that sense, you might think that the Icelandic volcano and its attendant flight disruptions would feel "right" to the people of Poland.  After their "stop the world" moment -- the death of so many government officials on one plane -- the world had to come, at least somewhat, to a stop.  Something apocalyptic in their lives was paired with something apocalyptic in nature.  It seems fitting.

The problem is that when something big happens and we feel like the world should stop, we most commonly feel like the world should stop and pay attention to what has happened.  This is what happened after 9-11, when in fact people weren't flying because of what had happened, and when the whole world did seem focuses, if only for a brief time, on what was happening to us in the United States.  The week of the attacks, at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London, the band played "The Star Spangled Banner."  It seemed to align.  But that is not what happened this week.  The natural world did something big, yes, but that something not only had nothing to do with Poland's tragedy, it actually prevented the rest of the world from focusing fully on Poland's mourning.

The fact of the matter is that the world does not stop turning when there is a critical incident.  As much as it may pain us, most people keep on living their lives even when we feel like we can't.  Friends may help and support us, but they cannot feel what we are feeling.  And nature may seem to echo our anguish, but, in the end, a volcano can't empathize with us, either.

Note:  In my lifetime, I think the most salient example of nature mirroring current events happened in October, 2004.  For the first time in 86 years, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, and there was a lunar eclipse the same night.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ann Arbor Firebug? The answer is yes.

Two weeks ago in this space I asked if Ann Arbor had a firebug.  There had been several suspicious fires overnight, including one that killed a 22 year-old resident.  The causes of those fires are still under investigation.  Last night, there were four car fires in the area surrounding the University of Michigan campus, all of them intentionally set.  Yes, Virginia, we have a serial arsonist. 

We often find ourselves saying, about things like this, "It has to stop before someone gets hurt."  But someone already has gotten hurt, and whether that particular fire was set intentionally or not, you might think that the death of Renden LeMaster would cause whoever is responsible for those that are arson to think twice.  Apparently you would be wrong.  It is way outside of my paygrade to try to explain why someone would do this, especially given that someone has died, but obviously someone is.

So, what does this mean for people who live in Ann Arbor?  How do you live life knowing that there is someone intentionally burning things next to buildings (all of the fires have started in cars or trash adjacent to inhabited apartment buildings or houses) and that not only could this be dangerous, we know it already is?  Should you be scared, and if so, how scared is appropriate?

This situation lends itself to a feeling of helplessnes.  Someone out there, we don't know who, may or may not be about to do something which may affect us, and if they do it's really bad but there's no way to know.  The antidote to helplessness is action, and so this is a good time to follow the adage, "Prepare for the worst and hope for the best." 

Now is the time for Ann Arbor residents to do what we all know we should do anyway but few of us actually do, and that is develop and practice a safety plan for our homes for fires.  Every person in every home should know at least two ways out of the house and where to meet after evacuating.  We should check our smoke detectors every 6 months.  We should tell our children to drop to the floor and crawl when they hear the alarm and feel the door before opening it, and also that, no matter how scared they are, never ever to hide during a fire -- kids naturally do this, and firefighters report that a large number of child fatalities in fires occur in closets and under beds where the rescuers cannot find the children.

Once that is out of the way, it's time to try to put things into some perspective.  Ann Arbor has a population of about 114,000 people, and thus far five of them have had their home burned down in the current string of fires, with one fatality.  That is five and one too many respectively, and obviously this is not a small deal for those people.  However, it also represents four thousandths of one percent of the population.  The chances of any one family being the victim here are still incredibly small.

So, how scared should you be?  However scared you are.  Some people will have no concerns, and some will have a lot.  That depends on you, your temperment, your past experience with fires, your overall anxiety level, and many other factors.  However scared you are, that's how scared you are.  There is no point stressing over whether you should be stressed.  Put that to the side, do what you can do to keep yourself and your family safe, remind yourself of the tiny odds involved, and give yourself a break.  Eventually, this will pass.  In the meantime, we're all entitled to feel a little nervous, or not.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sometimes, Even Mamas Make Mistakes

This afternoon, I was driving my daughter to dance class when we came to a spot in the highway where traffic was slowing down substantially.  On the other side of the road, there were two cars stopped.  In the median strip, a man was lying face down in the grass, not moving.  Someone else was leaning over him.  It wasn't safe to stop right there, so I grabbed my cell phone and dialed . . . 611.

Immediately realizing my mistake, I tried to dial again.  On the third try I successfully dialed 911, and my Blackberry cheerfully told me it was "restoring network connections" -- it had a low battery and was not getting a signal.  After waiting a few seconds, I asked my daughter for her cell phone.  I opened it and hit the wrong button, so when I tried to dial, it thought I was dialing "W.."  By this point, I had managed to get off the highway at the wrong exit, was totally flustered, and realized that almost certainly one of the stopped drivers and/or another passing motorist had already called for help.  So I did what anyone in my situation would have done.

I yelled at my daughter.

I will, in the interest of both her privacy and brevity, skip over what I was ostensibly yelling at her for.  And I should mention that, while I am not by any means the perfect mom or the calmest one, I am not, on the whole, a yeller.  But there I was, saying things that one should not say to one's daughter, using language that one generally hopes one's daughter will not ever use, and generally being out of control, now in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.  She yelled back, tears were shed -- a lot of them on both sides.

What the heck happened here?

Let me start by saying that I don't want to make excuses for how I acted.  Please don't flame me in the comments and tell me that it doesn't matter why I did it, it was the wrong thing to do.  I know that.  That's something that I have begun to, and will continue to attempt to, repair with my daughter.

It might help shed some light on why I was inclined to completely lose it at her (if not why I actually did) if you put yourself in my situation for a moment and imagine how I was feeling.  First, I had just seen something that, on the face of it, was really upsetting.  Second, I had been desperately trying to call 911 and had been unsuccessful, in part because I was so freaked out I couldn't operate a cell phone properly.  Mostly, I felt incredibly helpless -- a man was, as far as I knew, dying on the median strip and I could not help in the simplest of ways.

So I did what people so often do at these moments -- I took it out on someone else.  It couldn't be my fault, so it had to be my daughter's.  It certainly had to be someone's fault.  On top of that, my body had an adrenaline rush but nothing to to "do" with that sensation.  There was no action I could take.  I couldn't do flight, so I did fight -- I just fought with the wrong person.

Knowing that there was a good reason I acted as I did does not actually make me feel a whole lot better about doing it.  As a crisis responder, I encounter people like me all the time -- people who have acted, in the middle of an incident, in a way that is totally uncharacteristic of them any other time -- and I'm pretty good at helping them.  But it's hard to help yourself, which is why even crisis teams need crisis teams sometimes.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to Give Bad News

Tomorrow, I will sit down, one by one, with several members of my teaching staff and inform them that they will be getting a layoff notice next week.  I am not treasuring this experience -- it certainly is not why I became a school administrator.  These are the newest, most energetic, and in many cases most talented teachers in the school, who can least afford to lose their jobs because they make the least in the first place.  Because I've known for a while that I am likely to have to do this, I've given a lot of thought to how to do it right.  I know I'm not the only manager these days faced with this task, so I thought I'd share some basic rules to follow when you have to deliver bad news, no matter what that news is.
  1. Prepare and be prepared.  If the news is at all forseeable, share that it's a possibility before it becomes a reality.  We think we are doing people a favor by reassuring them that nothing bad will happen, but that's only true until something bad actually happens.  People need time to process bad news, and a little expectation goes a long way.  (For more on this, read my thoughts about preparing my staff for layoffs here.  

  2. It's not about you.  Very often, when you need to deliver bad news to someone else, you are also distressed by what has happened.  It's easy to fall into the trap of talking about how incredibly hard this is for you.  No matter how impacted you are yourself, however, when you deliver bad news that will seriously impact someone else, that interaction is about the other person, not you. 

    Here's a good example of what not to do:  I worked as an office temp just after high school, and my first assignment was cut short.  I was supposed to work for 6 weeks but they didn't need me after 4.  This was not a big deal to me, since it just meant the agency would send me somewhere else.  When the manager at the office where I was temping called me in to tell me, he began with, "This is probably the hardest job a manager has to do."  And then he waited and didn't say anything else.  I remember thinking that someone must have died, because I couldn't imagine what would be so awful that the manager couldn't bring himself to say it.  Had he delivered the news and waited for my reaction, we both could have saved a lot of stress.  Which brings us to our next rule . . .

  3. Let the reaction be your guide.  You may be able to guess at how someone will react, but people do all kinds of strange things in the face of bad news.  Be prepared for a colossal reaction or overreaction, but also for the possibility that they won't seem upset at all.  This is particularly true with kids, whose reactions often are not the same at all as the adults around them.  Thus, a kid who is heartbroken by the loss of a favorite piece of Lego can be completely unfazed by the death of a grandparent -- one is very real to him and one is not.

  4. Skip the platitudes and offer real help.  "Everything's going to be OK" sounds better in your head than it probably does to the person receiving the news.  On the other hand, if you can sincerely say, "I'm going to help you" or "I'm going to stay with you until you're OK" or the like, that's a measurable, observable piece of support.

  5. Be careful about leaving people alone.  People who are seriously upset can easily faint, crash their car or hurt themselves intentionally.  When in doubt, simply say, "I'm a little worried about leaving you alone.  Who can I call?  It will make me feel better."  In this instance, making it about you may be a good strategy.
Pink slips will, barring a miracle, be mailed next Thursday to my teachers and many others throughout the district.  On Friday, the day they will arrive in home mailboxes, my staff will gather for an all-pink-themed party (pink lemonade, pink jelly beans, strawberry smoothies, etc.)  I am offering rewards to anyone with enough guts to actually show up in a pink slip.  As much as I know that my teachers will not be surprised, because I've told them this is coming, I also know this is going to be hard on both those being pink-slipped and those not.  Offering good food, good humor, and good company is never a bad idea at these moments.  I know it's not enough, but it will have to do for now.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Poland's Tragedy

Ninety-seven people on a Polish government flight were killed in a plane crash in Russia yesterday.  The group was on their way to a memorial service honoring some 22,000 Poles who were killed at Katyn by the Soviets in 1940.  Thirty-seven government officials, including the President and First Lady, are among the dead.

Frequent Quarterbacker Edwin wrote yesterday with the following thought:

As I thought about it, I realized how crazy it was that the President of a country, all of the command of the armed forces, the head of the national bank and clergy, and members of parliament would all be on the same plane - a small plane going to a remote Russian village in foggy conditions.  Clearly, there has to be something wrong with that.  Isn't there?

I'm not sure I'm in a position to answer that question.  Certainly it's not uncommon to have multiple members of a government on a single flight.  We can all imagine that if Air Force One went down, it might kill more than jut the President.  Edwin does have a point, however, that having so much governmental power on a single flight seems foolish.  On the other hand, unlike the United States, Poland's President is the head of state but not the head of the government -- they have a prime minister -- so the loss to them is somewhat different than the death of a U.S. president would be to us.

When I was a young child, my parents sometimes traveled on vacation without us kids.  While they were comfortable leaving us with a sitter, there was one rule.  They never, ever traveled on the same plane.  Even as a kid this freaked me out a little, because it represented my parent's contemplation of the possibility their plane would crash.  As an adult, I realize that it also didn't make a lot of logical sense.  If they were concerned about them both being affected by the same tragedy, leaving us with no parents, then they should not have been driving in the same car without us either.

There are certainly protocols that are publicly known for making sure that the entire U.S. government isn't wiped out all at once.  If you watch the State of the Union Address on television, and you know your presidential succession, you may notice that one member of the President's cabinet is always absent.  The entire line of succession never ever is in the same place at the same time, in case something happens to the whole group, to ensure continuity of the presidency.  I don't know what the Polish equivalent is, but I would bet anything there is a reason that the Prime Minister was not on that plane.

It takes something quite counter-intuitive to produce a rule that says two important people can't be on a plane together.  It takes overcoming the basic denial which enables us to not be afraid all the time to plan for the worst.  Most civilians don't like to do that kind of planning -- that's why people who know they are extremely ill still don't make out wills or become organ donors.  We don't like to admit that we might die, even though we know it's true.  That's why, when it comes to security and continuity protocols, the people at risk are not the ones who make the rules.  They have security and military people do it for them.  The Poles may have a strong opinion about whether they did a decent job, given what has happened.  Not being affected myself by the deaths of these government officials or the upheaval they may cause in Poland, I don't think I'm in a place to judge.
Friday, April 9, 2010

Why the Inuksuk?

Those of you reading this on the website (as opposed to the feed) will note that we have a brand new Quarterback look.  This has a lot to do with me being on Spring break more than anything else, but it also allowed me to add a picture to the masthead -- an Inuksuk (or, more precisely, an Innunguaq, which is an Inuksuk in a human form) -- which I've been wanting to do for a long time.

If you're not familiar, an Inuksuk (this is the preferred spelling, not the more common Inukshuk) is a stone marker constructed by the native peoples of the northern tundra and arctic circle.  Inuksuit are used to mark paths, hunting grounds, food caches and the like.  You may recall seeing one as the basis for the logo of the 2010 Winter Olympics.  So, what's a nice Jewish girl like me doing with a native rock formation on her blog?

Inuksuit are left behind by those traveling before you, to show you the way.  The people who build them are not necessarily any smarter or better than those who follow, they simply are sharing their experience so others can make use of it and not have to do all the discovery themselves.  In that sense, I've long thought that the Inuksuk was the perfect symbol of early crisis response.

When I talk to people about what I do, and about what I can do for them or their organization, I often explain that Critical Incident Stress Management, at its core, is simply the combined experience of those who have been through traumatic events.  Each school Principal, for example, even if she is unlucky, might have 3 or 4 critical incidents affecting her school in an entire career.  She can learn all there is to know the hard way, or she can turn to someone with more experience for help.  But "more experience" still isn't much, so it's key to have someone who not only has been through this themselves, but also has gathered wisdom from many others.

I am not any smarter than the colleagues I help or the community organizations I support.  I have no magical talents or even particular instincts.  What I do have is the accumulated wisdom of the many who have gone through something like this before.  With that wisdom, I try to build an Inuksuk, to point the way for those experiencing a traumatic incident of their own.  If this blog, or my consulting and training work, or my work on CISM teams, points the way for just one person and prevents them from wandering the "tundra" alone, I'll consider that well worth the effort.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Gallows Humor in the Qatari Diplomatic Corps

About 13 years ago, I attended the funeral of my great aunt Clara.  She had lived a very long life and her friends and family turned out to honor her and to be with each other in a time of grief.  Aunt Clara was active in her synagogue Sisterhood, and at the end of the service the Rabbi announced that the members of the Sisterhood -- a quite elderly bunch themselves, at least the ones who were in attendance at the funeral -- would show their respect by forming their "customary honor guard" in the aisle as the casket was removed from the sanctuary.  As these little old ladies hobbled towards the aisle, my father leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Cross swords."  Then, of course, we had a problem, because we were giggling at a very serious moment of a funeral.

My father will tell you that he is at his funniest at funerals.  I was reminded of this because last night a man was taken into custody by Air Marshals on board a flight from Washington to Denver after he said he was trying to light his shoe on fire.  F-16s were scrambled and escorted the plane to the ground.  As it turns out, the passenger, a Qatari diplomat, was actually trying to sneak a cigarette in the airplane lavatory.  When he was confronted, he said he was trying to light his shoe.

There are two interpretations of what happened.  The one that surfaced first, and the one that reminded me of my father, was that the man was trying to make a joke out of what had happened.  The other interpretation making the rounds this evening is that this wasn't an attempt at a joke, it was a sarcastic barb.  In this version, the passenger wasn't saying, "Ha, ha, just trying to light my shoe!  Hardy har har!  Not smoking!  No sirree!" as much as he was saying, "You people are so ridiculous singling me out for smoking.  You probably think I was trying to set fire to my shoe, you morons."

I wasn't there, of course, so I can't tell you which interpretation is correct.  Anyone who has seen the warning signs at American airport security checkpoints, however, knows that you simply don't joke about explosives or make reference to them in any way when you're talking to security or airport or airline personnel.  So why did this man say something so incredibly foolish?

It's tempting to answer by saying he is stupid or arrogant, and I suppose either could be true.  But there is a much more human explanation -- the same explanation as the one for why my father is such a laugh riot at funerals.  It's not that either of them don't get it.  It's that on an instinctive level, this seems like the best way to deal with it.

All of us have an idea in mind of how we think people "should" act under pressure.  We also have an expectation for how we ourselves will act should we ever be in the midst of a serious crisis.  The trouble is, those expectations are based on rational thought, and rational thought goes right out the window under pressure.  It turns out there is no "right" way to act when threatened, or grieving, or in shock.  It also turns out that people do pretty nutty things because they seem like the thing to do at the time. 

My father thinks of his funniest comments at inappropriate times because they're inappropriate times, and he instinctively is fighting back against the seriousness and the sadness.  This Qatari diplomat made a remark about lighting his shoe most likely because that was precisely what he thought the crew might be worried about (and he was probably right).  Putting it out there -- in jest or in anger -- seemed on an instinctive level like the best way to deflect the situation.  No, it probably was not the best idea, but he didn't have time to think of the best idea.  In a moment of great seriousness, all he could think of to say was the cigarette-on-an-airplane equivalent of "Cross swords."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lessons from Sago at Upper Big Branch

As the town of Montcoal, West Virginia mourns its dead and waits for word on the four miners still missing following the Upper Big Branch mine explosion on Monday, minds around the country can't help but wander to the Sago mining disaster of 2006.  To refresh your memory, in January of that year an explosion tore through the Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia, and trapped 13 miners.  Two days after the explosion, media outlets broadcast the news that all of the miners had been found alive.  Unfortunately, this was not true -- only one miner survived the accident.  Until this week, Sago was the deadliest mining accident in West Virginia for more than 40 years.

There are a lot of obvious comparisons to be drawn between what happened in Sago and what happened at Upper Big Branch.  Part of the hope that is being held out for the minders in Montcoal is that new safety equipment, invented in the wake of the Sago explosion, was installed in the mine that would allow miners who could reach it to set up self contained breathing tents in the toxic air.  One similarity that might have escaped attention, however, was noted in a story in the Associated Press today.  The Governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, who delivered the false news of survivors at Sago to the families and the press, is still the Governor.

The AP reports that Manchin appears to have learned a great deal about how to communicate and work with families in a disaster since the catastrophic blunder at Sago.  This time around, he is delivering scheduled briefings to the press and scheduled updates to the families regardless of whether there is news to share.  Everyone knows when he will be speaking, and that he will share what he knows in those updates, but this time around he isn't trying to take control of the information.

What Manchin did at Sago was a very understandable and, in some sense, very common mistake.  He saw his role as using information to calm and comfort people, and so he was desperate for information that would do that.  As a result, when he heard a preliminary radio transmission of survivors (it turned out he misheard the transmission about the single survivor) and rumors started flying through the community, he jumped to be the one to deliver the news. 

It's not at all unusual for people in positions of importance who don't actually have authority over a crisis situation to try to control the flow of information to reassure their constituents.  Information is the only control they have.  The problem is that information cannot be controlled indefinitely, or even spun indefinitely.  Eventually, wrong information will be corrected and information that is delivered with a particular spin will be seen clearly.  Sometimes, the only real information available is bad news.  People in politically sensitive positions (and here I use the term broadly to apply to politicians but also leaders like CEOs, school superintendents, and anyone else who relies on their constituents having faith in them) are afraid that if they are straightforward or, worse yet, have nothing to share, people will be angry with them.

As Manchin has learned, and as is being reinforced in Montcoal right now, this just isn't true.  Yes, people want information and are frustrated when they can't have it.  However, people also appreciate honesty.  If you can convince people that you aren't hiding anything or spinning anything, they can begin to accept that the lack of information isn't your fault, and they won't blame you.  In fact, they'll appreciate you for what you are doing, and that is being there for them even though you can't really help the situation.  That's the human decency that people remember at the ballot box.  That's the biggest lesson Governor Manchin learned in Sago.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine

At least seven coal miners are dead and nineteen more are missing in Montcoal, West Virginia tonight after an explosion tore through the mine at about 3 o'clock this afternoon.  The governor of West Virginia is out of the state but is returning.  The congressman from that part of the state is on the scene.  President Obama has made a statement offering his support.  It is not clear from media reports whether it is believed that the missing miners could have survived the blast.

Coal mining is hard, dangerous work.  Those of us with a mild phobia about, say, tunnels, can tell you that the idea of being deep underground in one and chipping at the walls does not seem like a safe thing to do.  Seventy years ago, a thousand miners might have died in a given year in the United States.  Last year there were just 35 mining deaths. 

In other parts of the world, safety standards may not be as stringent, and the result is more accidents and more fatalities.  Just last week an unfinished mine in Xiangning, China flooded, trapping 153 miners.  Yesterday, 115 were rescued after surviving for a week eating bark and glucose packets dropped through a pipe into the mine.  They are the lucky ones -- 2,631 miners died in China last year.  There are, of course, more miners in China than in the U.S., but the death rate per 100 miners is still about 50% higher in China.

Everyone who lives in a community surrounding a mine knows that something like the explosion today could happen at any time.  You might wonder, then, why people keep going down into the mines or letting their loved ones become miners.  It truly isn't that difficult to understand, however, when you put it in some context.  The death rate in U.S. mines is about 1 per 666.7 million hours worked.

The name "Montcoal" probably gives some insight into the role that mining plays in that portion of West Virginia.  In mining communities, the mines are very often the largest employer by far.  Sons follow their fathers and grandfathers into the mines, and kids plan on becoming a miner when they finish school.  Mining is steady work in those communities that have coal veins below them, and steady work is often hard to come by outside the mines and the businesses that support the mining operations.

All of that is little comfort to the people of Montcoal tonight.  Their family members are missing, and it doesn't much matter if they were paid well or if the chances of something happening to them personally were tiny.  Tonight it feels like 100%.  It is unfortunate that there are probably very skilled crisis teams ready to assist Montclair -- unfortunate because that means this sort of thing has happened before, and people have learned from that experience.  Until those 19 miners are accounted for, however, all anyone can do is wait.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Does Ann Arbor Have a Fire Bug?

Overnight last night, there were three fires in Ann Arbor.  All began outside student housing.  All are under investigation.  The most serious, which began on the porch of a rental house, sent three people to the hospital.  One, Eastern Michigan University senior Renden LeMaster, subsequently died.  To put this in some perspective, during 2006 (the most recent statistics I could find), the Ann Arbor Fire Department responded to 322 fire calls, less than one a day, and many of these were for situations that did not require them to put out a fire (e.g. burnt toast).  So three is a lot, and someoned dying is a very big deal.

There are two pieces of context that are important in understanding how people are thinking about this.  The first is that yesterday afternoon and evening the National Weather Service had issued a Fire Weather Watch for southeast Michigan.  The weather was unseasonably warm and dry with high wind, meaning that conditions were ripe for fires to start and for small fires to become big ones.  The other is that about 50 miles away in the city of Flint, as I wrote earlier this week, there have been about 40 arson fires in the last three weeks.

Either one of these two factors could stand alone and swing how we feel about the fires last night.  If there was the weather alert and no situation in Flint, people might be thinking this was a string of terrible accidents exacerbated by the weather.  If there were a firebug in Flint and no weather alert, we might be sure this was arson.  As it is, we have both of those things, so you might expect people to reflect a balance in their thinking.

If that's what you expected, you would be wrong.  The news coverage has made no mention of the weather alert at all.  It has been fairly restrained, on the other hand, in pointing to arson.  However, all of the news stories mention that the fires are "under investigation" and that one of them -- not the house fire, but one in which the fire started with a car that had not been driven in a few days -- is considered suspicious.  A commenter posted something about the fires in Flint almost as soon as the first story about last night's fires in Ann Arbor went up.  The University of Michigan has issued a crime bulletin which, paradoxically, describes "several fires" as being "under investigation," but then tells community members to make sure their cigarettes are fully extinguished.

So, why isn't there more balance in people's thinking?  In the hours after an incident, balance is not what we're wired for.  We are wired to consider the worst.  This is a survival instinct.  When something awful happens, we don't want to miss something that might point out that there is more danger ahead, so we are skittish.  If someone has been shot, every car backfiring or door slamming sounds like a shot.  If there has been a car accident, every driver seems a little erratic.  And if there has been a fire, every fire might be arson.  Add in the media's natural tendency to go for the sensational, and we don't have a prayer of having any sense of perspective on this.

It's entirely possible these were all arson fires.  It's much more likely that one or two were and the other(s) were accidental.  It is very unlikely that there is a new serial firebug in Ann Arbor, as there is in Flint, although of course time will tell.  It's a good time to remember to check smoke detectors and escape routes, but it's also a good time to remember that while a rash of arson fires affecting us personally is possible, it still isn't likely.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Guardians of the Free Republics Get Our Attention

A "sovereign citizen" group called Guardians of the Free Republics sent letters to at least 30 governors this week telling them to resign from office within three days or be removed from office.  The FBI has sent out an alert saying that, while this group doesn't appear to be violent, they may incite violence in those so inclined.  These folks view the U.S. government as illegitimate and set a deadline of March 31 to dismantle it from the inside out.

I hesitate to call this group "right wing" because they really fall pretty far outside the spectrum of typical and even extremist dialogue.  In fact, their website reads a little bit like the ramblings of someone who thinks the CIA is controlling their thoughts through their dental work.  They're also not very well established.  Their Wikipedia article was first written today.  And they're not violent.  So why is anyone paying any attention?

First, there's the obvious -- when someone says that if a government official doesn't resign they are going to be removed, people think violence.  Their website says they have
a bold achievable strategy for behind-the-scenes peaceful
reconstruction of the de jure institutions of government without
controversy, violence or civil war.
The reassurance we might get from this disavowal of violence is somewhat mitigated by the fact that their idea of doing this "without controversy" appears to entail sending letters demanding the resignation of all of the governors at once.  If that's without controversy, without violence could get violent.

I think there is something more basic at work in the publicity this story is generating, however.  The fact that the letters have gone to so many governors has made this a local story in every corner of the country.  If you do a Google News search on Guardians of the Free Republics, you will find story after story in local news sources discussing the letters received by the governor of that state.  The headlines don't say "Lots of Governors Get Whacko Letters," they say, "Our Governor One of the Threatened."  This takes this situation from being a federal one, which affects all of us some but none of us much, and brings it home to each of us, quite literally.

I have no idea what these people really want.  I read their website today and I understand that they're questioning the legitimacy of just about anything, but their "plan" is awfully obscure.  It seems, though, that part of what they want is attention.  At 44 cents each, letters to all of the governors cost them a grand total of $22, for which they purchased an incredible amount of media attention and a lot of personalized anxiety.  I can't say I condone it, but they got a lot of bang for their buck.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Arson and Layoffs in Flint

On March 24, the city of Flint, Michigan announced that it would be laying off 23 firefighters and 46 police officers the next day.  Within minutes of the press conference, an arson fire broke out in a vacant building.  In the nine days since, there have been nearly 40 such fires,  including five last night alone.  Three firefighters have been injured.  Flint has asked for mutual aid, a system under which cities and towns agree to help each other in an emergency, from other county fire departments.  Now those departments are starting to cancel their mutual aid agreements because they, too, are stretched thin.

No one knows for sure who is starting the fires.  Many have speculated that they are a protest against the layoffs.  Some have gone further and accused firefighters of setting them.  The head of the firefighter's union has said he is truly insulted by that accusation, and that he does not believe the layoffs and the fires are connected at all.  It is always possible that this is a horrible coincidence.

Layoffs can be very distressing to people in any profession.  In a profession, like firefighting, where colleagues are closely knit, it is especially difficult.  Unless you know or are a firefighter, it's difficult to imagine how much these men and women rely on each other and bond together.  Layoffs represent a separation of one or members of, essentially, the family.  It's a grotesque understatement to say that that is bad for morale.

On the other hand, you might expect that firefighters don't mind a string of fires.  After all, putting out fires is what they do.  Most firefighters will tell you, however, that while they like their work and are glad to be able to help the community, they don't actually want there to be a lot of fires.  Like most emergency workers, they like being able to make a difference, but they wish they didn't have to.  What's more, every fire represents a danger to the firefighters who respond.  Any fire could become dangerous or even lethal.  In that sense, every one of the arson fires in Flint is an intentional assault on the fire department.

In addition to the double-whammy of layoffs and the fires, we now have other departments saying that they will not come to Flint to help.  I'm certainly not in a position to criticize those decisions -- every city has to do what makes sense for their people and their community.  To the Flint fire department, however, this just adds insult to injury.  People who go through critical incidents often feel helpless.  The sense of not being able to do anything is horrible.  Asking for help and not getting it greatly complicates the situation.  Imagine someone who is assaulted in broad daylight while passersby ignore it.  Their reaction may have as much to do with being ignored as with the assault.  Now the Flint firefighters are being assaulted repeatedly, and neighboring cities are saying they will no longer help.

I don't know who's setting the fires in Flint, or what their motivation is.  I will say that if they are motivated by support for the firefighters and protest of the layoffs, their actions are truly counter productive.  They have taken a situation that would be hard under the best of circumstances, and escalated it severely.  With friends like this, the firefighters in Flint sure don't need enemies.

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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 www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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