AURORA – On the first morning of the first day of school, teachers here plan to address what their students have undoubtedly been unable to escape for the past two weeks – the July 20 massacre in a local movie theater.
By the district’s estimate, 150 former and current Aurora students, parents and staff were in the Century Aurora 16 theater when a heavily-armed lone gunman opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 58 others.
AJ Boik, 18, who graduated from Aurora Gateway High School in May, was among those who died. Principal Bill Hedges said Thursday that he’s identified 50 other former or current Gateway students who were either in theater no. 9, where the shooting occurred, or adjacent theater no. 8.
“They’ve been talking about it for the last ten days and what we want to do on our first day is give them an opportunity – not require them to talk about it – but open the door,” Hedges said during a Thursday news conference at Aurora school district headquarters.
“We’ve been getting great advice from mental health professionals on what to look for, what to watch for, what we can expect,” he said. “We’ll have a whole range of reactions based on students’ ability to cope with tragedy.”
Suspected shooter James Holmes lived not far from the theater in an apartment across the street from Paris Elementary School. When he told police he had rigged his apartment with explosives, they evacuated his building and five more surrounding it.
Among those displaced for several days were 47 families of children at Paris.
“I think there’s a lot of uneasy feelings with the families … it was very shocking for them,” said Principal Lisa Jones. “So I think it’s very important for the students to be able to talk about what they saw, what they heard.”
Aurora Schools Superintendent John Barry said district officials, in consultation with experts from the National Center for School Crisis & Bereavement and others, are preparing “age-specific” scripts for teachers to address the shooting when students return next week.
The scripts are just one component of a carefully-planned response outlined Thursday by Barry and aided by an outpouring of support from around the world.
“We will come out stronger in the end, I’m convinced of that,” he said during the news briefing. “This incident will not define our city.”
Few superintendents anywhere were likely as prepared as Barry to respond to the after-midnight tragedy during the premiere of a popular Batman movie.
The retired fighter pilot and major general led the investigation into the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
In the hours after the shooting, Barry opened Gateway High School so police could interview witnesses there and he opened Aurora Central High School for evacuees from Holmes’ neighborhood.
Two more high schools – Hinkley and Rangeview – were opened as community disaster recovery centers. Counselors in those schools served about 50 people over three days.
“The measure of strength is often asking for help, it is not a measure for weakness,” Barry said. “That is a clear message that I as superintendent will communicate to our students, our families and our staffs.”
Now, with students due back – Aug. 7 for middle and high schoolers and Aug. 9 for elementary grades – the district is planning enhanced security and increased mental health staffing at schools.
At least one extra psychologist or counselor will be on hand at each high school, Barry said, while additional mental health support will move between elementary and middle schools “on a day-to-day basis.”
A $50,000 emergency grant from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will help hire substitutes to provide relief to teachers who need support. Duncan also will address students and staff via podcast.
And the district is dipping into its emergency funds to hire a district recovery coordinator for at least the next three months.
“This is really a challenge for us with all these other budget cuts we’ve gone through,” Barry said, noting the district has cut $76 million in four years. “But I’m convinced we will get the resources we need to meet the needs of the students, staff and families.”
Parents will be able to opt their students out of any discussion about the shooting on the first day of school, but Barry said the experts he’s consulted – including those who assisted after the Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis in 2006 – don’t recommend it.
“Not naming it at the beginning can either be interpreted as … as adults, we’re not competent to talk about it or we can’t process it ourselves,” he said. “To do it in a structured environment with a trained educator is a lot better than in the hallway, the gym or the playground.
“It’s very important this not be ignored. We’ve made that mistake in this country before, where we were just kind of, ‘Well, we won’t get them upset’ … But the truth of the matter is they are processing it and we have to be able to have that open conversation.”