Looking Forward After Sandy Hook: AFSA Joins Bereavement Coalition

Last year as the holiday season approached its peak, the unthinkable happened in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. a gun man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire on innocent school community members, killing 20 students—all ages 6 and 7—and six adults, including Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, an AFSA member. The story shook the world; how could this happen at an elementary school.

One year later, as violence in schools across the country continues, little has been done in Congress. Action was discussed after the shooting, but on April 17—despite overwhelmingly strong support from the public and the emotional advocacy efforts by the families of the Newtown victims—the U.S. Senate failed to approve legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illnesses to purchase firearms. The failed measures included S. 146, the “School and Campus Safety Enhancements Act,” sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), which would have authorized federal funding to implement safety measures at elementary and secondary schools.

While Congress failed to pass necessary legislation to improve our schools’ safety, AFSA continued to take action. On Aug. 7, AFSA partnered with the Department of Education (DOE) to present a school safety webinar for both AFSA members and the general public.

Taking another step forward, AFSA is partnering with educators across the nation to find solutions for supporting grieving students by forming the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, which represents educators, school leaders and school mental health providers.

The New Coalition

Led by pediatrician and childhood bereavement expert Dr. David Schonfeld and sponsored by the New York Life Foundation, working with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, the coalition is working to create “industry-endorsed” resources to help students work through tragedy.

Representing AFSA on the committee is Executive Vice President Jim Dierke.

“This coalition is extremely exciting. It is an opportunity for educators to come together and unite on a common front on an extremely important issue,” said Dierke. “We need to assist our principals with how to be resilient around the continued pressures and stress surrounding their jobs when confronted with tragedy and violence.”

While the role of educators in helping students through a tragedy is crucial, the majority of educators report feeling unequipped to handle such situations. In a 2012 survey in grief at school conducted by the New York Life Foundation with AFT, seven in 10 teachers reported having at least one grieving student in their classroom, while only 7 percent reported any background in bereavement training.

“The lack of grief and bereavement training among educators is troubling,” said Diann Woodard, president of AFSA. “We are facing a time where school violence is a reality and we need to take steps forward in coming together as educators to support our students. This coalition offers us that unified opportunity.”

The organizations joining AFSA in this coalition include:

  • AFT
  • American Association of School Administrators (AASA)
  • National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)
  • National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
  • National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE)
  • National Education Association (NEA)
  • School Social Workers Association of America (SSWAA)
  • United Federation of Teachers (UFT)

Moving Forward

The coalition will work together to create unified and standardized resources, including a website, webinars and printed materials among other outlets, to provide educators and school community members with the tools they need to support grieving students.

While the creation of materials will be an ongoing process, the coalition aims to have a “practitioner-oriented” website ready for the 2014–2015 school year to “provide practical, accessible information for teachers, administrators, school mental health professionals and other school personnel.” AFSA will provide members with ongoing updates as resources become available.

“The heartbreaking events of Sandy Hook changed all of our lives forever, but the best thing we can do in response is to be proactive,” Woodard said. “We owe it to the victims of Sandy Hook to take away what we can from that horrible day and look forward with open eyes.”