By Stephanie Filio
My city is massive in land and population. We have wonderful diversity in this southern bubble of ours, fueled by a coast, tourist-enticing beaches, and our beloved military bases. It is both comfortably slow and expeditiously efficient. With so many people and events, we have had our fair share of complications but are statistically safe and content. No amount of sun and sand, however, could have protected our city this year when we experienced violence in a way we never had before.
A few weeks before the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, my hometown—my place of business, the city where I raise my family, our Virginia Beach—made headlines for a violent multiple-casualty workplace event.
Mass shootings and other large-scale traumatic events are unpredictable and abrupt. The news tells us that these events are happening more often for various reasons, but it seems the only thing we know for sure is that settings and victim populations are unpredictable. Survivors and citizens from places where these events have taken place say that no amount of training could prepare you for something so terrible and that the damage left in the wake spreads further than anyone could have imagined.
When our sense of security and temperate living was rocked in Virginia Beach, educators were called on to show up in a big way to help ease the fears of the young people in our city.
Children and Violence
Every time there is a mass shooting, students are reminded that life is fragile and that we are rarely completely safe. Gone are the days when parents may have restricted kids from watching news due to its disastrous nature. Young people now have easy access to streaming graphic content, and they are living in a world of endless violence. They are repeatedly made aware of danger and are raised to be hypervigilant and on alert at all times.
Knowing what we do about how sustained stress affects people, we know that the ramifications of this type of environment on children are incredibly damaging. Perhaps we are seeing this manifest in increasing numbers of 504 plans and IEPs, especially for young people with anxiety and depression. We could possibly even be witnessing a new relationship between mortality and 21st-century students, stirring the alarming numbers of young people attempting suicide and turning to self-harm.
While social science professionals work hard crunching numbers and searching for answers, educators are on the front lines running constant triage with overstimulated and emotionally undernourished young people.
News broke that there had been a mass shooting in Virginia Beach at the end of the day that Friday, and details continued to be released throughout the weekend. My peers and I were in constant communication as the names of the victims were released and we began to see fragments of what had happened. We had never dealt with such a shocking tragedy in our city, and as others have stated, we had no idea what the days and weeks ahead would look like.
There were so many layers to understand: community health, family concerns, and student well-being. Even now, months later, I find myself at a loss when attempting to grasp the situation in firmer terms than as a series of questions.
- In the beginning, we had to wrap our minds around tangible information pertaining to our placement in the community. Were students’ parents working in the affected building? Would any students have been at the municipal center when the tragedy occurred? Which teachers had city employee spouses?
- Racing through initial questions, we exited our buildings on Friday and realized that we also have our own circles of people to think about. Is the suspect in custody? Where are my own kids/parents/spouses? Who do I need to check in with? Have I heard from friends who are city employees? What details have the news revealed?
- As we began to get a surface look at who may have been directly touched by the tragedy, we began to ask broader questions. How will students respond if they knew a victim by multiple degrees? Will our city continue to operate regularly? How in the world did we get here?
- Realizing that operations continue, questions pivoted toward the future. Were students watching the news at home, and did they have access to someone who could answer their questions? Would students feel the pressure of proximity as well? What was Monday going to look like, and what would students need?
What was a horrifically mournful day for 12 families in Virginia Beach was proving to be a harrowing time for everyone living in the city. What I have come to realize is that large-scale tragedies bring large-scale trauma to a collective population. This might seem like old news, and I have probably said it before myself in this social and emotional profession, but I get it now in such a different way. When our city was touched by this violence, our fear moved beyond sympathy or empathy. The probability of victimhood became plausible, and it was scary.
School counselors respond to trauma every day. Sometimes we know the stories and sometimes we know only the behavior, but there is always trauma beneath the surface. I planned to approach Monday as I would have if there had been trauma in our hallways, but as a vast arm rather than individual peeling of emotions.
- Reach out. I sought out as many resources as I could to feel connected and get comprehensive insight into trauma-informed practices. Peers, advice sent by our superintendent and administration, and tips from our phenomenal school social worker were really helpful. I wanted as many tools for my toolbox as possible when approaching this unknown circumstance, and it made me feel supported and more confident to know that such an amazing team was standing with me.
- Show up. I knew that an essential part of student response would be environmental readiness—making sure that as students walked through the door on Monday, they would know that their school was the same positive and safe environment they had known before their city became saddened. This included checking in with teachers before students arrived, securing positive presence in the hallway to greet students, being open to conversation, and reminding students to visit the counselor’s office.
- Stand back. I called upon my play therapy skills class from years before. In play therapy, the intent is to simply allow students to process without minimizing their experiences or exacerbating their anxieties, by repeating their expressions with little digging for deeper feelings. You could see students’ minds moving as the proximity to such violence started to sink in. Some students knew victims well while others held a degree of separation, and it was important to let them lead the conversations. Students often stretch information on their own when their expressions are mirrored and their feelings confirmed.
Facing the Day
As I walked into work that Monday morning, one of my students was entering at the same time. As he held open the door for me, he said, “Mrs. Filio, did you hear about what happened? My mom works in building 1; she came home crying.” I paused and let time hang between us. I had to quickly process my thoughts and push aside the personal feelings this brought up. With a warm smile, I simply asked him what that felt like. He told me it was scary, but that they are really happy she was okay. I asked him if he felt safe, and he said he did. I told him I was really glad his mom was okay and reminded him that he could ask to come see me any time. This simple conversation seemed to open a space for him to be able to go into the day confidently.
My day contained many similar interactions. The kids wanted to tell me what happened, where they were, how their parents were connected, whether they had personal connections to the victims. I let them move at their own pace, I reflected their feelings, and I reminded them that they were safe in the moment. In speaking with my colleagues, I learned that these same conversations were occurring in every school throughout the district. It was scary and emotionally exhausting at times, but the beauty of the education family and the school counseling team is that you are never on your own.
What we learned in Virginia Beach is that when violent events occur in your hometown, there is a sadness that blankets the city. When circumstances are unbelievable, you enter a world of uncertainty, and everyone forges ahead at the same pace in an attempt to move forward. The lens through which you once viewed your surroundings takes on a more fearful tint. To move forward, people living in this city supported each other in schools and workplaces, at kitchen tables, and in public contact. In this companionship, we were not only able to persist, but also were able to best serve our students and teach them that even in the hardest times, kindness and humanity persevere far beyond fear.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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