When Tragedy Strikes at School: Lessons Learned
Jim Witt, Superintendent of Lake Local Schools, Millbury, Ohio
On June 5, 2010, at approximately 11:30 PM, a level E-F 4 tornado roared through the Toledo, area, causing death and destruction in several outlying suburbs. Our community, eight miles east of Toledo, was particularly hard-hit, with eight resulting deaths . Additionally, millions of dollars of property destruction occurred, including Lake High School, which was completely destroyed by the storm’s fury.
In the aftermath of the disaster, we began the rebuilding process. With our schools at the heart of the community, this was the starting place for many of our efforts to recover and rebuild the community. We learned many lessons as we debriefed and recovered.
Below, I share the most critical lessons learned by our school community during our time of need:
- Provide mental health services for survivors of all kinds. We were immediately in touch with mental health experts. They provided us with guidance and information that lessened the pain of loss, trauma, and displacement throughout our community, as well as providing trauma-informed support for responding personnel.
- Limit the size of the decision-making group. We created a key group of administrators and board members, each assigned a specific area of responsibility for the duration of intervention, debriefing, and recovery.
- Choose a guiding principle. We used the litmus test of “What is best for kids?” as we encountered difficult choices.
- Hire a public adjustor to help with the insurance claim. The firm we hired was incredibly helpful with our claim. To this day, I believe this was the best money spent on our entire project.
- Make friends with the media. Local, regional, and national news outlets can be very beneficial to an organization during a time of need. We made a point to accommodate the requests of almost all media; they provided us with very positive coverage throughout the process.
- Use humor to get through the most difficult times. A difficult undertaking, to rebuild a campus and a community requires untold hours. A dose of levity — always tasteful and within a professional context — in our regular meetings helped to relieve stress and pressure.