- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

MARYSVILLE, Wash. (AP) - When horror strikes a school, Cheri Lovre often gets a call.

During the past 16 years, she has helped communities across the country face the psychological trauma of school shootings.

“No one should do what I am doing,” said Lovre, director of the Oregon-based Crisis Management Institute.

Her calling took her to Thurston High School in her home state in 1998 when a student gunman killed two and injured 25. Along the way, she has been to Columbine High School in Colorado and Nickel Mines Amish in Pennsylvania, where in 2006 a milkman shot 10 students in a one-room school house, killing five.

Her latest stop is Marysville Pilchuck High School where, on Oct. 24, freshman Jaylen Fryberg shot five friends, killing three, and then himself. Lovre arrived in Marysville the same day.

Since then, she has been offering advice to school district leaders, teachers and parents aimed at helping students as they return to campus. She’ll be working behind the scenes Monday when Marysville Pilchuck reopens the doors after a weeklong closure.

Lovre said she often can tell within 30 minutes of walking into a crisis if a school district is pulling together or fractured. She has been impressed with the Marysville response.

“This is a wonderfully strong district,” she said. “They take an idea. They get it. They run with it.”

She urges Marysville Pilchuck parents to have their children return to campus on Monday. The longer students are away, the more isolated they might feel later, she said.

The goal at MPHS on Monday is to be warm and welcoming, to help the 1,200 students feel safe. With a 10:30 a.m. start, it will be a short day. Grief counselors will be in the wings, but “we know what is most important to them is their time together, connecting to familiar faces,” Lovre said.

Columbine’s lessons

Nearly two weeks came and went before Columbine High School reopened in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999. During the closure, there were 13 memorials - 12 for students, one for a teacher.

In some ways, the school community still is recovering 15 years later.

Frank DeAngelis was the principal that April day when two classmates shot up their school before killing themselves. Today, he is a new name in Marysville school Superintendent Becky Berg’s cellphone contacts.

DeAngelis spent 35 years at Columbine, including 18 as principal.

He well remembers that first day back after the shooting and the army of counselors.

The students first were allowed to return to their fifth-period classrooms to meet up with the teachers and classmates they were with when the shootings took place. They had that bond, and it was a way for them to see that their surviving friends and teachers were OK.

Classes were shorter. The day ended with an all-school assembly. DeAngelis knew he had to be honest in what he said, but he couldn’t go into details. He assured his students and staff they were not alone. They had each other. They were like a family.

Recovery, he learned, would become an odyssey.

Many wounds were invisible, deep yet hard to detect.

“I think the most difficult thing is trying to meet the needs of everyone because there are people in different places - the students, the staff, the parents,” he said.

He found that the closer students and staff were to the violence, the more traumatized they had become.

Different sights, smells and sounds could trigger distress. Chinese food, which was served in the cafeteria the day of the gunfire, was stricken from the school’s menu. Certain songs weren’t played.

Every time a helicopter flew over, “it brought us back to that day,” he said.

DeAngelis saw the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder - teachers who initially seemed to be doing well struggling years later, former students having trouble holding down jobs. These days, he keeps in touch with Columbine graduates in their early 30s, some with children of their own.

“They were doing pretty well until they became parents and they had to take their kids to school that first time,” he said. “They really struggled. They had a very difficult time leaving the school. The roles change and they are taken back to what happened.”

‘Saved for a reason’

DeAngelis encourages people to seek support from wherever they can get it. His faith as well as mental health counseling helped him immeasurably.

He initially felt survivor’s guilt. On the day of the shootings, he stepped out of his office and into a hallway as one of the teen shooters approached. When two girls wandered into the line of fire, he shepherded them into an empty hallway. The shooters’ attention was diverted by teacher Dave Sanders, who came running from an opposite direction. Sanders died. Had he not interceded, DeAngelis likely would be dead.

In his Catholic church two days later, the Rev. Ken Leone whispered into his ear: “Frank, you were saved for a reason.”

The words stayed with him. DeAngelis knew he had to help rebuild the school community.

He stayed at Columbine another 15 years. He wanted to make sure he was there for every child, even those who’d been in their first year of preschool that day. When the last ones graduated, he retired. That was a year ago.

He cautions people in Marysville not to expect too much too soon.

“Learning is going to be somewhat difficult when they go back,” he said. “If kids are concerned about the safety, it’s going to be difficult for them to understand math or science.”

As Marysville prepares for the short term, it must be mindful of the long term.

“I have always said normal will never be the same,” DeAngelis said. “We are all part of a club that no one wants to be a member of, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to move forward.”

Ready for Monday

Within hours of the shootings, Superintendent Berg announced that Marysville Pilchuck would be closed for a week. Other schools, including Marysville Getchell up the hill, remained open.

Geography doesn’t determine what school Marysville high school students attend. Enrollment is based on choice. In some families, that means Marysville Pilchuck students stayed home last week while siblings went to class.

The decision to cancel school for a week was a judgment call. Schools where shootings have occurred typically close anywhere from a day to two weeks, Berg said.

For the district, it was a week of swimming in choppy, uncharted waters. School districts prepare and train for shootings and other emergencies. There’s less guidance on how to start anew. Last week, Marysville took a crash course.

“Goodness knows we needed the time for reintegration,” Berg said.

Many factors, big and small, need consideration.

Students were adamant they no longer wanted to eat in the large cafeteria where the shootings occurred. The district decided it won’t reopen the building for now, or in its existing setup. When students return, they will eat in the gym and in another small cafeteria.

Sunday the district set aside private time to meet with students who witnessed the gunfire, and for high school freshmen - classmates of the students involved. The events are meant to provide students a softer landing on Monday. Their families are welcome, too.

The district has been changing the sound of the fire alarms, which blared the day of the shooting. They don’t want the same harsh noise to take students and staff back in time to that traumatic morning.

The district is trying to shield students from TV cameras and reporters’ questions when they return to school. There will be no media allowed on campus Monday.

‘We need our students’

Scott Stokes, a counselor who has been at Marysville Pilchuck for 35 years, looks forward to the students’ return.

“I think there is an awful lot of unknown,” he said. “More than anything, we want our kids back. We miss them terribly. None of us has gone through this. I don’t know what to expect. I just hope that whatever it is the kids need to know, that all of us are up to providing it. The effort will be there.”

Nate McClellan, a Spanish and PE teacher, also is eager for Monday.

“One of the things I have been feeling is not only are the kids going to need us, but we need our students,” he said. “I have been comforted and uplifted by many of the kids and their ability to bounce back, their ability to see we can still have a bright future.”

McClellan was hoping to clear his head when he and art teacher Louie Jones hiked to the summit of the 5,324-foot Mount Pilchuck early Thursday morning and planted a large red MPHS flag.

In the back of his mind, he knew it was more than that. It was a symbolic act for the weeks and months and years to come in the school and the community.

“Climbing a mountain, that’s what we are doing here,” he said.

Omar Tapia, 17, a MPHS senior, has turned to his family for strength. He also has been trying to look out for classmates.

“It’s going to be different,” Omar said. “It’s not going to be the same. We just have to try to fight through this.”

Fellow senior J.J. Valencia, 17, has had the companionship of his friends, including his MPHS football teammates.

“We’re all just hanging out trying to get our minds off of it,” J.J. said. “As soon as Monday hits, it’ll be a slow transition.”

Carsyn Yorkoski, an MPHS junior, looks forward to the transition back into a routine, despite knowing he will be closer to the reminders of the tragedy.

The junior expects the return to school to be emotional, much like his experience attending Friday night’s football game.

It will be a chance to be with friends, too see how they are faring, and feel the support of the community. At the game, Carsyn felt unity in the moment of silence - the poignancy of thousands of people reflecting, without a sound.

“It was everyone getting together for a positive event, but you realized at random moments just what happened,” he said.

A marathon

Last week, Lovre, the crisis counselor, told parents that the psychological recovery is a marathon and the community hadn’t yet reached the first mile marker.

“That is the nature of catastrophic events,” she said. “The fallout continues over time in a myriad of ways.”

For now, little things that parents can do - a note in the backpack, a treat on the pillow, a simple “I love you” - can provide their children emotional comfort, she said.

The way Lovre sees it, she has the worst and best job possible.

She witnesses the rawness of tragedy and the caring of communities trying to mend together.

“There will continue to be unexpected challenges and unexpected blessings,” she said. “There will be silver linings in these clouds.”

___

Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldnet.com

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