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Learning the Lessons From the Colorado Shootings

It is not every day that you get a chance to hear from a top gun pilot who led investigations into the attack on the Pentagon and the Challenger disaster, and was also the Superintendent of Schools in a school district that has been touched by tragic shootings – but that is exactly what we experienced at our January 17th symposium at Rutgers. 

John Barry served as the Superintendent of Aurora Public Schools for seven years from 2006-2013. Before coming back to Colorado, he served in the Air Force for over 30 years as a combat veteran, fighter pilot/USAF "Top Gun" graduate, Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense and commander multiple times at the squadron, group and twice at the wing command level. He retired in 2004 as a "2 Star", Major General, and he served his last tour on active duty as Board Member and Executive Director for the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation. 

John’s presentation, “Windows on Crisis Management” highlighted a phased community response approach, and stressed the importance of preplanning and the implementation of table top exercises with the incident response team (IRT). Using the school shootings as a model, he divided the plans for disaster response into five phases: Immediate Response, Preparation for the Resumption of School, Start of School, Ongoing Support and Needs Assessment and Commemoration.

Recognizing the impact the theatre shooting had on his students, John made sure that they were actively involved in planning memorial activities to ensure they could express and cope with their feelings.  He commented that “adults often worry that memorial events and discussions will upset students or themselves, but it is the crisis events that are upsetting.”  He urged his audience to “minimize traumatic reminders” and to keep in mind that the “goal of commemoration is to remember what was lost and what we wish to preserve rather than remember the moment or method of loss.”

When planning for crisis response, it’s critical to have an experienced leader who understands how to mobilize a community.  It’s also important to learn from past events and to build working relationships with community leaders well in advance of the crisis. As John said, “don’t reinvent the wheel, learn from others experiences and be flexible, knowing every event is a little different.”   

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