My first day of school this year started in a distressing new way: with a moment of silence.
This is my 16th year as an educator, my 10th year as a school leader, and third year as a public school parent. I thought I had the start-of-school routine down pat.
But this first day of school changed me forever. I am the principal of Rocketship Spark Academy in San Jose. Six-year-old Stephen Romero, a rising first-grade student, was gunned down in Gilroy, California, on July 28, 2019. School started just two weeks later.
Nothing prepared me to lead a school through the aftermath of this tragedy. How do you make sense of such unspeakable violence, let alone help an entire elementary school heal? How do you explain what happened to kids as young as 4, or guide Stephen’s sister through her first day of third grade?
As a leader, as an educator, and as a father, I struggled. When Gilroy fell out of the news cycle so quickly because of the mass shootings a few days later in El Paso and Dayton, I battled my own feelings of helplessness and despair.
But I made it through that week, and the months that followed, with the support of my family, my team, and our school network. The experience taught me a lot about what it means to authentically communicate with young children about death, and what it takes to care for students who have already experienced trauma in their lives and then experience more of it.
I desperately hope that no one else will ever need to use the lessons I learned. But I know they will, so here are a few ideas that helped guide us — and that might ease the burden a little bit for educators who find themselves with such a task.
Communicate honestly. My staff members, alongside our school’s mental health professionals, determined that our students would need explanations of the event from those they trust and the space to process those explanations.
We worked with our families to explain the tragedy to their kids before school started. This approach provided a more private space for students to learn about the tragedy before hearing about it at school. We then started the first day of school with a moment of silence. Instead of jumping right into first day activities, we took the time to hold community meetings. Sitting in a circle with their homeroom classes, our teachers explained what happened and answered student questions. My team, our mental health counselors, and I felt that it was important for us all to be honest while keeping our descriptions developmentally appropriate. We encouraged teachers to show their emotions, offering a healthy example of responding to tragedy.
Provide differentiated support. I spent a lot of time in classrooms those first few days, and I was struck by how these moments are initially much more emotional for adults to process than they are for young children. The adults at our school were processing Stephen’s death on multiple dimensions, experiencing the loss personally but also grieving for his family, his friends, and his community.
Students, on the other hand, were often trying to understand the facts on a very rational level. One student asked his teacher, “Does this mean we will never see Stephen again?”
With our youngest students, we spent a lot of time talking about the concept of death and tragedy. For Stephen’s class (and that of his sister and cousin), school leaders and mental health counselors joined the first-day community meeting, offering immediate, one-on-one support. We also gave students the chance to process through action, encouraging them to write letters to Stephen or draw pictures of their favorite memory of him.
The conversations that unfolded in our classrooms helped us understand the kind of support needed for both students and staff.
Treat compounded trauma. Over the weeks following the shooting, it became clear that this tragedy layered on top of prior wounds for some students.
An estimated 26% of children in the United States experience or witness trauma before the age of four. At Rocketship Public Schools, well over 80% of our students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, and up to 30% of students at some of our schools are classified as homeless. It is well documented that our children are much more likely than their more affluent peers to experience trauma, which can impede their learning and development.
At Rocketship Spark Academy, some of our students responded by revisiting past family traumas, some reverted to old, disruptive behaviors, and some refused to engage at all. So we met students where they were. We infused social-emotional learning lessons into every class. We deepened our parent engagement efforts. We focused on using our trauma-informed teaching techniques, which include learning how to put disruptive student behaviors into context.
But our work is not done. One day this fall, I was sitting in on a classroom’s morning community meeting when they were discussing upcoming family plans. One student raised his hand and said, “My family is planning a trip to Disneyland, but I don’t want to go because someone might shoot me.” His voice showed almost no emotion. It sounded more like he was sharing a fact, rather than expressing fear.
That moment reminded me that helping our students heal is also about empowering them to become the future leaders we need. There is nothing normal about losing a kindergarten classmate in a mass shooting. When navigating unthinkable tragedies like this with students, we need to be mindful to balance our compassion with intolerance for the violence that affects our communities and society at large.
Healing is a long journey, and we’re just getting started.
Danny Etcheverry is the principal of Rocketship Spark Academy. He was previously the principal at Rocketship Mosaic Elementary, the founding director of instruction for Metropolitan Lighthouse Charter School in the South Bronx, and a teacher in Brooklyn and in Rome, Italy. He has worked as an adjunct professor of education at LIU’s Brooklyn campus and was a member of Relay Graduate School of Education’s National Principals Academy Fellowship. Above all, he is the proud parent of a second-grade Rocketeer.