Hard Leadership Lessons from Newtown: The Importance of Preparedness

19 Dec

By Lynn Olsen

Today is Wednesday and I’ve had a few days to try to comprehend what happened in Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday.  The horror of 20 beautiful, innocent 6- and 7- year- olds being murdered in their classrooms by a mentally ill man costumed in combat gear probably will never fade.  But I do think that some very valuable lessons coming out of this monstrous event are in danger of being lost.

It could have been so much worse.  The death toll could have been in the hundreds.

The staff at the school had been trained how to act in such an unimaginable situation.  They responded very quickly and with great courage.  The shooter was trying to find more children (and adults) after he had killed those 20.  He had hundreds of rounds of ammunition left.  Thanks to the fast actions of the staff, he could not find them – they were protected by doors their teachers had locked. Many were hidden by teachers in closets and cubicles and kept quiet by lollipops, reading or whispered songs.

Six staff members gave their lives.  Several were found trying to shield children with their own bodies.

Every teacher, administrator and staff member at that school showed themselves heroes who did all in their power to protect their small charges.  They were amazing and deserve our highest honors.  But they also had been trained on what to do in an emergency.

I know that many other schools already have emergency procedures in place, but I hope every school – public and private, kindergarten through college – will follow Sandy Hook’s example.  Teachers and administrators should be trained and drilled on how to handle this kind of emergency.  This event should be carefully studied to determine if there are ways to improve school security.   One suggestion I have heard would make it difficult to enter by shooting a glass front door such as the one at Sandy Hook.  Reinforce the glass door with wire mesh screening or wrought iron grills.   Even if it couldn’t stop an armed intruder completely, it would certainly buy time for the teachers and administrators inside to get the kids to safety.  I’m sure that other ideas can be learned from this tragedy.

As a country, we may never have the ability to completely stop acts such at the one at Sandy Hook.  But we also know now that preventive measures can save many lives, even if they cannot save all lives.  I hope this lesson won’t be forgotten in the necessary and important discussions about gun control and mental illness that are sure to follow.

I also hope the next time you see a teacher or an administrator of a school or college, or other public servants who dedicate their working lives to our benefit, that you will tell them how much you appreciate and value them.  In these hard and uncertain economic times, it has been easy for some to attack the public employees and complain they are not worth their (frequently modest) salaries and benefits.   This, to me, is so wrong and short sighted.

Think how you would feel if your child’s life was saved by one of these public servants.  To my knowledge, there is nothing in a teacher’s contract requiring that his or her life must be sacrificed to save students but I believe that many teachers would willingly step forward to protect those in their care.  We have seen this happen over and over again in other such tragedies.  In addition, many of the first responders will be marked forever by these events; most doctors expect Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to be a common problem for those at Sandy Hook.  Don’t begrudge your respect and support to these people when they may need it most after the glaring media spotlight has faded and the real after effects for survivors begin to surface.

The other lesson to be memorized in the wake of Sandy Hook is the importance of working together with respect and courtesy to look for ways to minimize the likelihood of any more mass shootings in public places.  I don’t pretend to know how to do this, but I do believe it is imperative that we demand that  our political and government leaders, our neighbors and ourselves climb out of the ideological pits we have substituted for an honest search for solutions.

We are Americans and this is not our way.   Working together helped make us an example to the rest of the world.   It was a good pattern – let’s try it again.

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