Although all of us are trained in critical incident preparedness, none of us were prepared for the sheer horror of the events of Sept. 11.
Interestingly enough, the schools were the first place that the community and media turned when they wanted to know what was going on. It was kind of like, "If the schools are OK, then we can get through this."
Granted, we deal with crises every day, but there are small crises and then there are CRISES.
Sept. 11 was certainly the latter. We believe the reason many looked to the school for leadership was that we already had faced the unthinkable with the Columbine incident. We constantly drill on anticipating the unknown, overcoming the seemingly impossible and trying to keep things as normal as possible for the majority of students.
Everyone, nationally, is grappling with this tragedy. Those agencies or cities reacting most successfully have some common traits: continuous dynamic leadership; a caring, involved community; and focused efforts and follow-through.
We all took heart from watching our leaders attempting to provide information while at the same time grieving deeply. Every single individual in this country was touched, and we quickly learned we must have a local response to the national issue.
When the unthinkable happened Sept. 11, what happened in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District?
As for most individuals, the morning news seemed unreal. Our phone calls began shortly after the first news release. The message to principals was consistent: please get to school and meet with your critical incident team; we'll be doing the same in central office.
I called the media and let them know we were planning to start school as usual and that we would keep them posted with any changes.
We called the outlying school principals, who might not have easy access to media coverage, to ensure they knew what was going on.
The first meeting of senior management in central office (the critical incident team) set the following guiding principles. When you have a district as diverse as ours, setting the parameters for how decisions are going to be made is a worthwhile exercise. Our efforts and responses were based on the following:
1) Communication would be clear and regular to building administrators, the school board and those central office individuals answering the phones.
2) Whenever possible, the school site would decide how an issue was handled.
3) Whenever possible, business would proceed as normally as possible under the circumstances.
4) A member of the leadership team would be available immediately to respond to individual situations and concerns from schools.
At 8:30 a.m., the first districtwide communication went out via e-mail.
The technology system could have been strained by the sheer infrastructure "load" as classrooms and offices were running streamed video of the tragedy, but it wasn't. We were thrilled that our capacity to communicate was excellent -- thank goodness for the technology plan!
We reminded administrators that a calm manner is good, a routine helps children cope and people react differently and have different needs. We gave specific instruction in how attendance would be noted and options for evening activities. We talked about the age appropriateness of media reviewed by children and the importance of teachable moments that would present themselves all day. We dispelled rumors and provided accurate information about the state response and expectation.
Every two hours we met in central office to determine the next steps and communicate. The behind-the-scenes heroes, who cleared calendars and schedules while making sure calls were answered promptly and messages were received, warrant a special thank you.
It still surprises us that out of 1,200 employees, only one had an immediate family member lost in the World Trade Center. However, several individuals and families were involved indirectly with family members, roommates and friends lost or directly impacted.
We were able to post a message on the Web for all readers, noting links to important sites for parents and information about cancellations of events.
At the end of the day, it was evident that a herculean effort on the part of all employees had taken place. All had put aside personal fears and needs for the good of the students. Then it was time for everyone to go home and reflect on an event that still makes no sense.
We know that grieving is a long-term process, one that occurs over time, but not all of the time.
During an administrator meeting in late October, 60 administrators from the district came together to talk as a large group for the first time since Sept. 11. We had planned an hour-long activity in an otherwise packed agenda to briefly share what happened in schools on the day of the tragedy.
This activity took on a life of its own, lasting more than three hours. It was evident that all of us were deeply and profoundly affected, and as leaders responsible for the welfare of others, we needed a time to process our thoughts in a safe environment.
Since that day, I've taken the opportunity within circles of friends to take a few extra minutes and talk and listen to people about the disaster. It is obvious we need lots more time to process, grieve and try to gain some meaning.
Let's continue to count our blessings, work together to make the country and community strong and be there for each other -- after all, that's what life is all about.
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