December 2001 / Terrorism

Question Mark
Ask the Superintendent: Terrorism
Superintendent's Column
Peninsula Clarion
D. Peterson

November 7, 2001

Although all of us are trained in critical incident preparedness, none of us are prepared for the sheer horror of the events of September 11, 2001. Interestingly enough, the schools were the first place that the community and media looked to when they wanted to know what was going on. It was kind of like, "if the schools are okay, then we can get through this." Granted, we deal with crisis every day but there are small crisis and then there are CRISIS. This was certainly the latter. We believe that the reason that many looked to the school for leadership was that we had already had to face the unthinkable with Columbine. We constantly drill on anticipating the unknown, overcoming the seemingly impossible, and trying to keep things as normal as possible for the majority of students.

Everyone nationally is grappling with this tragedy. Those agencies or cities reacting most successfully have some common traits - continuous dynamic leadership, a caring, involved community, and focused efforts and follow through. We all took heart from watching our leaders attempt to provide information while at the same time grieving deeply. Every single individual in this country was touched and we very quickly learned that we would have to have a local response to the national issue.

So, when the rubber met the road on September 11th, what happened in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District? As with most individuals, the morning news seemed unreal. The calls began shortly after the first news release. The message to principals was the same - please get to school and meet with your critical incident team, we'll be doing the same in central office. I called the media and let them know that we were planning to start school as normal and that we would keep them posted with any changes. We made calls to the outlying school principals that might not have easy access to media coverage to make sure they knew what was going on.

The first meeting of senior management in central office (the critical incident team) set the following guiding principles. When you have a district as diverse as ours, setting the parameters for how decisions around going to be made is a worthwhile exercise. Our efforts/response were based on the following:

  1. Communication would be clear and regular to building administrators, the school board, and those central office individuals manning phones
  2. Whenever possible, the school site would make the call for how something was handled
  3. Whenever possible, business would proceed as normal as possible under the circumstances
  4. A member of the leadership team would be immediately available to respond to individual situations and concerns from schools

At 8:30, the first district wide communication went out via e-mail. The technology system could have been strained by the sheer infrastructure "load" as classrooms and offices were running streamed video of the tragedy, but it wasn't. We were thrilled that our capacity to communicate was so good - thank goodness for the technology plan! We reminded administrators that a calm manner is good, that a routine helps children cope, and that people react differently and have different needs. We gave specific instruction in how attendance would be noted and options for evening activities. We talked about the age appropriateness of media review by children and the importance of teachable moments that would present themselves all day. We dispelled rumors and provided accurate information about the State response and expectation.

Every two hours we met in central office to determine next steps and communication. The behind the scenes heroes who cleared calendars and schedules, made sure that calls were answered promptly and messages received, warrant a special thank you. It still surprises us that out of 1200 employees, only one had an immediate family member lost in the World Trade Center. However, several individuals and families were involved with indirect family members, roommates, and friends lost or directly impacted. We were able to post a message on the web for all readers noting links to important sites for parents and information about cancellations of events. At the end of the day, it was evident that a herculean effort on the part of all employees had taken place. ALL had put aside personal fears and needs for the good of the students. Now it was time for everyone to go home and reflect on an event that still makes no sense.

Many of know that grieving is a long-term process, one that occurs over time but not all of the time. At an administrator meeting in late October, sixty administrators from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District came together to talk as a large group for the first time since September 11th. We had planned an hour-long activity in an otherwise packed agenda to briefly share what happened in schools on the day of the tragedy. This activity took on a life of its own, lasting more than three hours. It was evident that all of us were deeply and profoundly affected and as leaders responsible for the welfare of others, we needed to have a time to process our thoughts in a safe environment. Since that day, I've taken the opportunity in the circles of friends I'm associated with to take a few extra minutes and talk/listen with people about the disaster - it is very obvious that we need lots more time to process and grieve and try to make meaning. Let's continue to count our blessings, work together to make the country and community strong, and be there for each other - after all, that's what life is really all about.