Content Warning: This article contains mentions of death and gun violence.
In the span of less than two months, Franklin has been met with four heartbreaking experiences in rapid succession. Two students have died, one due to gun violence. There was a shooting just blocks away from Franklin’s building as a tutorial period was in session, prompting a 45 minute lockdown. There have been threats of violence made against the school, the most recent during spring break. These events have shaken witnesses, as well as friends, loved ones, and peers of the deceased students. Yet as this has happened, school has continued at a fast pace, tethered by the rush of spring classes and AP exams amidst a sea of sorrow. The tragedy of Franklin’s second semester has strained mental health supports as grief-stricken community members wonder how to stay resilient in a dark time. The past few months have shone a light on how the Franklin community, alongside the school district, needs to be rebuilt and restructured in order to keep students not only safe, but also thriving.
The tragedies that have struck Franklin are in line with a national trend of harm against schoolchildren. As of 2020, gun violence is the leading cause of death for children ages one to 19 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nonfatal shootings at schools have become an endemic reality. According to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, more than 100,000 American children were at the site of a school shooting between 2018 and 2019. And children have become more likely to die young in recent years. According to the New York Times, about one in 25 American five-year-old children are projected not to reach the age of 40, which is a far higher rate than can be seen in peer nations. Franklin’s recent struggles have been a dark microcosm of these greater national trends: Multiple incidents involving gun violence have hit the school in the last two months.
After the shooting and lockdown on March 9, PPS decided to shut down the school for students for the day after (Friday, March 10). Staff, including counselors and teachers, were given a two-hour late start before a planning day. The cafeteria continued to offer food, as is required on any school day, but no other services were provided for students, who instead took the day to rest and recuperate free from the burden of fast-paced school classes. But Franklin did provide more direct services on Monday, March 13. Teachers offered time for students to write and talk about how they were currently feeling and how they felt during the lockdown, which took place during tutorial period, a time of optional (and lower) attendance. Counselors, social workers, and professionals were offered to students in hallways, in a more available position than the remote corner of the building they typically inhabit.
As the school rallied together, those additional supports were available, especially in the library, where students could take time away from classroom instruction to rest. However, not all of the previously implemented supports were offered on the Monday after spring break. According to Franklin counselor Keixa Bridges, the reduced number of trauma interventionists was due to the fact that few people had used the service over the previous trauma-struck month.
The school’s response to the trauma of spring break, between a student’s death and a shooting threat, was very similar. Once again, first period teachers were given resources to provide the class with time to process, this time with a presentation from school administration as well. Mental health support staff continued to roam the halls.
In addition to its six counselors and two social workers, Franklin offers support from outside the school itself. According to Franklin social worker Jed McClean, the school provides a therapist four days a week through the Health Center, and four more therapists have shown up to provide culturally-specific support, especially for BIPOC students. People of color are less likely to have access to or receive therapy, according to the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. Two restorative justice coaches and three attendance and engagement staff help Franklin community members take care of themselves, especially those who may otherwise lack access to therapy services.
The heartbreak that has struck Franklin’s students has taken a toll on its counselors in addition to its students. Keixa Bridges, a counselor at Franklin, feels committed to helping students navigate these difficult times. But Bridges served as the counselor for one of the recently-deceased students, and she has continued to work, often talking to high schoolers about the very thing that had been preventing her from getting through her day. “Eskender’s death hit me pretty hard,” she says. “I found out about it over break. Which I think is kind of like a blessing in disguise. I had some time to process and be around my own loved ones and prepare to show up for people.”
Bridges feels that her past experiences have made it easier to help students navigate tragic times. “I actually grew up in a community in high school that experienced a lot of death. Specifically, I lost four classmates in my high school experience. So I think that weirdly enough I’ve always felt equipped to show up and be there for students who are going through that,” she says. After repeated adverse experiences, many people can become hardened as a survival mechanism. “When deaths happen in a school community so close to one another, I wonder how much desensitization is happening for students,” says Bridges. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that college students who had been exposed to high levels of real-life violence in their lives had diminished emotional responses, including empathy, when they viewed violent movie clips, suggesting that desensitization can numb one’s emotions and reduce their long-term capacity for empathy.
It is of utmost importance to take time to process feelings of overwhelm, grief, anger, confusion, and the whole other slew of emotions that can come with trauma. However, when done wrong, processing activities can lead to some harm. Dr. Odelya Gertel Kraybill, a trauma specialist and faculty member at George Washington University, wrote about the impacts of processing trauma in a 2018 article, ‘Trauma Processing: When and When Not?’ for Psychology Today. She wrote, “…telling the trauma story is ineffective in bringing relief from symptoms of trauma and sometimes can be harmful (retraumatizing). Kraybill elaborates that “careful preliminary work with other strategies needs to take place before working with the trauma story itself,” as “early work should focus instead on restoring a sense of safety,” rather than going into detail about the traumatic event(s) themselves.
Other research similarly backs up this idea. In the book “Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change,” author and University of Virginia Psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson cites a study which compared trauma supports for people who had experienced severe burns. They were more likely to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they discussed the event immediately after it happened than if they didn’t. Meanwhile, an approach in which people wrote in private about the event several weeks later, yielded improvements in immune system function, grades, and work productivity, among other things.
Students have expressed that Franklin’s day off after the shooting did little to restore the overall sense of building safety, as no further action occurred. Sofia DeBenedetto (10) explained that it was a good decision because it “allowed time for the staff to discuss ways to prevent this and discuss lesson plans.” Amanda Mayernik, one of Franklin’s two official Student Success Advocates, explains that “the intention is there” when it comes to Franklin taking the day off, but that it cannot be the only response, as it is not a long-term solution. “Anytime we are canceling class time we fall out of district guidelines,” they explain, saying that students must be in class for a certain amount of school days per year, and though Franklin staff would love to offer more time off to support students, it’s just not possible.
Mayernik poses the question: “How are we wrapping around each other and offering bigger supports to our students?” The day off did provide many students with time to rest and process their experiences from the day before, without having to worry about homework and the other added stressors that come with school. However, for others it may have impeded the ability to recover from the events. McClean notes that many students rely on the school’s structure and services for mental health support, so for “students who primarily access support through their teachers and other support staff in the building, it may have been more activating [triggering] to not have a structured day on Friday to do normal routines.”
Bridges reminds us that as these weeks of pain continue, it’s important to remember that all forms of grief are acceptable. “I would say [to students] that grief is personal and unique to themselves, and to not judge where they’re at in that process and to give themselves grace, and to please, please extend that grace to each other and to the staff members in this building,” she says. It may take time to recover from these traumatic events, and that’s okay. Everyone responds to moments of loss differently, and all of those reactions are valid.
However, even as staff members attempt to encourage a trauma-informed approach, Franklin students point out certain structural barriers that prevent members of the community from taking the time to rest and recover. Members of the Franklin community note the conflict between prioritizing the time to process the emotions that may rise when faced with trauma and maintaining the structure of the school day to consistently follow educational standards. DeBenedetto expresses frustration with a lack of acknowledgment of the trauma these situations hold, saying, “Most of my teachers said nothing. They said nothing to acknowledge the situation.” Mayernik acknowledges the complexity that comes with processing such difficult issues in a classroom setting. “I think a lot of teachers really do their best to give space in their classrooms,” they say, referring to teachers taking time to have a community discussion and engage in emotion-centered processing. “For some students that can be helpful, but for others it can be more triggering.”
Students overall are getting drastically different experiences in navigating the trauma that stems from school right now, as there are only suggested guidelines sent out to staff on any particular day. Teachers only have a certain amount of autonomy when it comes to running their classrooms and deciding on whether or not it is a productive or helpful usage of time to take up processing a traumatic event. Some teachers may feel more comfortable discussing trauma than others. “There are always going to be teachers that are going to be curriculum focused and want to teach the material rather than looking at holistic practices,” says Mayernik. She explains that there has been communication from administrators encouraging teachers to “take space” to process, or to even lessen the workload. DeBenedetto shares that they wished they did have a space specifically integrated within the classroom structure that would “provide a place for people to actually share their feelings and thoughts.”
Teachers have also had varied responses in part due to the wide variety of subjects they teach and rooms they teach in. It may be easier to talk about traumatic experiences within an English classroom versus within the weight room, for example. Some classes may be more used to discussing emotionally heavy topics with each other.
There is no district guidebook as to how schools can best use resources to support their students amidst a time of tragedy—just as there is no requirement for teachers to do double duty as trauma-informed counselors for students. The lack of resources that students have mentioned is not due to a lack of trying. Licensed grief counselors were sent in by PPS district officials in order to mitigate the situation and to help students process their own feelings. The result is not a fix-all as some would hope. “I’m not really sure what they did,” says Truman Rhoads (10). “What we need is a larger conversation with students to talk about the resources that are needed,” Rhoads adds. He worries that “some students feel voiceless and hurt” by the way the Franklin administration has dealt with the trauma in the community. Rhoads poses the question: “What are they [administrators] really doing in response to how the student body is feeling right now?”
Franklin Vice Principal Scott Burns points out that the school has communicated with students after crises with information via email. “When a student is wondering or hoping for more transparency, and [wondering] what the plan is and is making these decisions, honestly, a really good source of information are the communications that go home to families,” he says. He points out that some of the most intentional communication comes from Principal Frazier’s video messages shown to students in first period directly after a tragic event.
Franklin administrators are also working on determining who should provide support in times of crisis. Burns says that the staff has wondered how effective support from district counselors can be. “One of the things that we [have] talked about was around … how effective it is to bring folks in that no one knows,” he says. But the school itself has a finite amount of support it can provide without district assistance. “The hardest part of making use of staff in the building is [that] there’s limited staff, with a limited support staff, with over 100 staff members to support nearly 2000 students to support […] of varying needs and degrees of support,” he points out. Burns believes that the best support can come from the relationships built between students and teachers. “The best type of, and most effective type of healing and response I’ve seen to a crisis situation is when there’s a caring community already built up in the classroom from day one in September,” he says. “So when these things do happen in our community and students’ lives, then that’s a solid foundation that you can depend on as a student and a staff member, to be fully honest [and] to have that supportive community,” Burns adds.
Bridges expresses a desire to ensure that students’ voices are represented in discussions about how to respond to future traumatic events. “I would like to get more student feedback, whether that’s data collection of some sort to hear from what is working for them,” she says. So far, the approach has remained mostly the same between events; depending on student feedback, there could be changes in the future.
To explain the resources and response that Franklin has implemented, it’s important to establish that the district makes these decisions from the top down. “There are constantly new directives…there’s constantly new things either being offered and then taken away,” says Mayernik. “The district could really benefit from listening to individual schools, teachers, and students and put in the framework for some needed things.” Staff and students are seeing the result of the lack of resources implemented by the district. Mayernik explains that “if resources aren’t there, if practices aren’t there, if training isn’t there, there’s only so much you can do.”
Franklin has had limited decision-making power, including after the shooting and lockdown on March 9, when the district decided to shut down the school the day after, according to Franklin Vice Principal Scott Burns. “We definitely made some recommendations based on the needs of the school on whether or not to have class,” says Burns. PPS does receive feedback from Franklin on what to do. “We’re not allowed to make that decision on our own. But we definitely advocate and push you know for certain things to happen when we see there’s a need,” he adds.
Mayernik feels that Franklin needs more support allocated by the district in order to move forward. “Everyone at the school recognizes that we need more, but we are just not allowed. Our admin does a really great job of figuring out what type of support is going out, and we try to be as organized as we can, but we absolutely do not have enough support,” they say. Mayernik says that the best thing for Franklin would be to have more specific resources when it comes to serving BIPOC students, which comes with having more staff members in the building. They pose the example of a student needing to take a quick mental health break in the hallway. “We need to be able to ensure their physical safety, and we can’t do that if we don’t have anyone to supervise.”
There are also mental health supports available outside of the school. Teenagers can access peer support by calling YouthLine, which can be accessed via the number 877-968-8491, by texting “teen2teen” to 839863, or by chatting online via theyouthline.org. YouthLine’s services are available from 4 to 10 p.m. each day. Multnomah County provides the number 503-988-4888, which is available 24/7 for mental health services.