Violence more likely at semester start

BY HEATHER MOYER | BOSTON, MA | August 21, 2004

"Maybe we have learned that no one is safe from tragedy, but faith helps people recover and find the meaning of life."

—Dr. Carol Hacker

It's the time of year when many school bells ring again, marking that

the new school year has begun. Many students go to school wondering

about new classes or if they'll like their homeroom teacher -- but

many others will also be wondering if their school will witness

a shooting.

School shootings have increased dramatically in the past decade and

some scientists are noticing a trend. A new report out last week

from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which studied school

violence since the '92-'93 school year, indicates that student

homicide event rates are usually highest near the start of the fall

and spring semesters. The CDC report states that its results are

meant to assist schools and communities in implementing

violence-prevention programs.

Faith communities are taking note of the new report, as many

faith-based relief organizations have been working on

violence-response programs since some of the major shootings in the

late 90s. Many say they've learned a great deal along the way.

"Initially we didn't have much of a response plan," said Stan

Hankins, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's (PDA) Associate for

National Disaster Response. "But we put together a group of folks

who are skilled in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD)."

CISD stems from military trauma and stress, said Hankins, it's a

peer-to-peer counseling and training concept that's also used now

with law enforcement agencies, EMTs, and firefighters.

Hankins said PDA's CISD team works with the pastors from the areas

where the school shootings take place. "Pastors are some of the

first people on the scene, they often deal with the emergency

response," he said. "Our CISD team is made up of four well-trained

staff people who are also clergy."

Hankins said they don't just offer their assistance to Presbyterians,

either. "We offer it on behalf of Church World Service, to any

clergy and church leaders who request it," he said.

PDA's CISD team responded to the shootings at Columbine High School

in 1999, as well as other shootings since then. Hankins said they

plan to add more people to the team.

Dr. Carol Hacker, a counseling psychologist from Lakewood, Colorado,

has been doing response work for Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR). A

certified trauma specialist, she worked for years in the same county

where Columbine High School is located.

Hacker said she'd done volunteer work for Lutheran Social Services

for some time. When the shootings happened at Columbine, she went

back as a volunteer to help counsel students, and clergy -- and

that's when LDR Director Gil Furst recruited her to be a permanent

help to their relief organization.

Hacker believes there are a number of problems and challenges the

faith community faces in dealing with how to respond. Most clergy

are trained in grief counseling, said Hacker, but not necessarily

crises like these. "The faith community wasn't prepared when all this

started happening," said Hacker. "People think churches and schools

are safe places, but since all these shootings in these 'safe'

places, we've had to rethink our methods."

She believes that one major problem is the focus of the efforts.

"People are trying very hard to respond and do prevention," she said.

"The problem is that people are looking for the cause and the

solution -- but there is never one cause or one solution."

Through the years of school violence, Hacker says it's hard to

pinpoint anything brand new that people of faith have learned. "I

don't know that we've learned anything necessarily new, I think the

things we already knew were just intensified," said Hacker. "So

maybe again we have learned here that no one is safe from tragedy, but faith helps people recover and find the meaning of life."

LDR and PDA are among nine mainstream faith-based

organizations that are sponsoring a study to determine the best role

for the faith community following incidents of public violence

including those in school settings.

The study, being conducted by the Village Life Company (producer of

Disaster News Network), will be based on case study research of a number of communities across the country. Using information from the case

studies, recommendations for future response and a training program

for clergy and other faith-based leaders will be developed.

Hacker says she believes differences among people's religious

backgrounds also affects how they recover from tragedies, but Hacker

also believes that how to handle working with those differences has

also been a challenge. "These differences caused the schism between

the sides to get a little larger after some school shootings," said

Hacker, noting her work with the aftermath of the Columbine shootings.

Despite the various religious backgrounds, Hacker came up with

several problems that most clergy faced after the Columbine shootings

and that clergy from around the country could face after public

violence. She said that many church congregations grew significantly

with people looking for comfort and safety, but many clergy weren't

prepared for that. "The clergy were still in shock from the

shootings, too, and yet everyone expected them to be the rock and to

know what to do," she said. "And this is something the clergy need

to know -- 'You are human, so you have emotions, and you are needed

too.' The same goes for principals of the schools."

Another problem she cites is if the perpetrator of the crime and/or

that person's family was a member of that clergyperson's church or

place of worship. What if the family needs counseling, but so do

the victims' families? How does one balance this? "This is

obviously difficult," said Hacker. "It has come up after public

violence around the country -- and these are all issues most clergy

never thought about."

The idea of forgiveness is yet another possible dilemma for clergy,

said Hacker. "Many faith folks rush this, saying that people need it

to be able to move on. Yet many people aren't ready for that right

after these crises," she said. "Faith people need to allow time,

don't push them into it. Be careful, forgiveness is a process and

not something quick."

Still another problem that can have major lasting effects on a

community, said Hacker, is that some studies show that within two

years of a major disaster, most of the area's clergy are so deeply

affected that they leave.

Hacker said that her work with LDR is aiming to help prevent problems

like the ones she listed out. She's done numerous trainings around

the country with clergy to tell them to be ready. "I try to teach

them about balance, you know, when your heart's breaking and you want

to be alone, but your congregation is crying for help," said Hacker.

She has also written pamphlets and is working on manuals for clergy

and schools about natural and human-caused disasters.

For youth impacted by school violence, the Ferncliff Camp and

Conference Center in Arkansas offers help. Ferncliff was set up

after the shootings at a school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Each summer

for the past six years, a week-long camp has been held for the youths

impacted by school violence. Ferncliff Executive Director David Gill

says the camp focuses on healing.

Students from all over the country have attended Ferncliff, and Gill

said that the students do well in talking with each other and

relating their experiences. "The camp lets kids from various places

like Columbine or Jonesboro come together to help each other.

There's definitely a connection between them," said Gill. The youths

also do art projects, participate in Bible studies, plan worship

services, and go on nature hikes to help them through the healing


This year they even held a carnival for homeless children. "That

really helped the youths, we showed them that doing something for

others can also do something for oneself," Gill said.

Gill said the students he has worked with are very interested in

helping any other schools that experience shootings. Recently, the

students formed TOUCH -- Teens Offering Understanding, Caring, and

Healing. "This really lets the kids help others and develop

leadership skills," he said. This year Gill said the TOUCH students

wanted to send something to those schools going through violent times.

"They want to prepare backpacks filled with helpful items -- you

know, everything from a letter from the kids stating 'We know what

you're going through!' to a funny video and a stuffed animal," he

said. "These are things that these students wished someone had sent

to them. Mostly it's the connection they want to make -- them saying

'We know you'll need many things on your journey to healing like we

have' -- and inviting them to come talk and participate in the camp."

Gill added that they've had youth from urban schools, where Gill said

violence is sometimes more common than in the suburban schools, and

last year they even brought in youth from Bosnia to talk about

growing up in a place where violence is rampant. "It's been really

meaningful, we give kids a means to express (what they're going

through), no matter where they're from," said Gill.

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