Elisa Crouch December 10, 2015
ST. LOUIS • To better help principals address trauma in St. Louis Public Schools, the district turned to a former assistant principal at Sandy Hook Elementary, who helped students and staff through one of the nation’s most devastating school shootings.
At a training session at the district’s central office, Anthony Salvatore stood with talking points and a microphone in hand and warned the 180 principals and other district staff members that he might have trouble getting through the discussion.
Concentration becomes increasingly difficult as Dec. 14 approaches, he said. That day will mark the third anniversary of the morning a gunman entered the school and fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members at the school in Newtown, Conn.
Salvatore had worked at Sandy Hook for one year before the district eliminated his position for budget reasons and moved him to a vacant job at a middle school, months before the shooting.
“Otherwise I would have been there that morning,” Salvatore said. “It’s kind of a mixed blessing. My wife reminds me this is a good thing. I’m still working through that.”
Salvatore worked with the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, in the front office. She was a principal who would dress up like a princess or an alien to promote reading, and was among those fatally shot. Salvatore said he believed that if he had been there he might have been able to do something.
“It’s something that I continue to struggle with.”
In addition to dealing with survivor’s guilt, Salvatore is working to help school districts prepare themselves for any traumatic event.
Although large-scale shootings have become more common in the United States, the chance that any single school will experience one remains small. But increasingly, districts are training their staff in crisis, trauma and grief management in the event of a tragedy of any size.
In St. Louis Public Schools, children die annually from violence, car crashes and health-related problems.
Eleven district school children died in the 2014-15 school year, Superintendent Kelvin Adams told the group.
Even more survived gun shots or house fires, or suffered the loss of a parent to violence.
Last month, three children died in a house fire in the Walnut Park East neighborhood that authorities believe started with a space heater. One of the girls was a 6-year-old gifted first-grader at Ames Visual Performing Arts School. The school lost two children to drownings the previous year. Two of the survivors of the house fire attend Carr Lane Middle School, off Jefferson Avenue.
“Obviously, we deal with trauma and crisis events every day based on incidents that happen in our community and to our families,” Adams said. “The question is, how do we respond? We don’t have enough social workers for every single school, or counselors for every single kid.”
So the district is devoting professional development time to helping administrators and teachers address grief and trauma in the classroom. Part of this also involves planning for a major crisis.
Salvatore was among three speakers who talked about coping mechanisms, how to develop a plan and how to help students who are grieving.
The others were David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement based at the University of Southern California; and Dominick Nigro, who worked for the New York City school system during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The American Federation of School Administrators was a co-sponsor of the event.
“Tony’s story is a possibility for all of us who work in schools,” Nigro said. “We’re living through an era that the president has described as ‘the new normal.’ Whether it happens within a school building or happens in a theater, children are involved.”
Salvatore retired from education one year after the Sandy Hook shooting. He worked as an educator for 35 years. Hochsprung had been his mentor when he first became an administrator in Newtown, years before they ended up working together at Sandy Hook.
The trauma from an event doesn’t go away, he said.
“The worst time wasn’t the first year, but two or three years later,” Salvatore said. “Like around now. The third year anniversary is coming up. It’s becoming more stressful.”
In the months after the shooting, seemingly insignificant incidents would trigger painful memories of that day. A visit to a kindergarten classroom in Detroit. Even the phrase, “I’ll shoot you an email” would bring pain. He described a panic attack during an interview for the principal’s job at his middle school, and a secretary who would close the door to his office when he became overwhelmed.
He took medical leave around the first anniversary of the shooting. In March 2014, he retired.
Salvatore thanked the St. Louis principals and staff for the work that they do in schools each day.
“You may take it for granted,” he said. “As one who found it necessary to retire after Sandy Hook, you have my utmost admiration for what you do every day. At some level I wish I could do it. But I can’t.”