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Pastor recounts lessons learned for church response to school violence

EDITORS’ NOTE: Michael Carneal, 15, entered a plea of guilty but mentally ill Oct. 5 for killing three fellow students at Heath High School, West Paducah, Ky., last December and wounding five others as he opened fire on a before-school prayer group. Carneal will spend at least 25 years in prison. Two months earlier, a similar tragedy had occurred in Pearl, Miss. The following account by Tommy Mitchell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Pearl, and chaplain of the Pearl Police Department, offers counsel to churches concerning the possibility of such crises in their communities. The article is reprinted from the November 1998 issue of “Youth Ministry Update,” a newsletter published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is used by permission.

PEARL, Miss. (BP)–The fall day of Oct. 1, 1997, began like any other typical school morning for our family, school and city. But tragedy would strike that morning, in a place of safety and innocence.
Luke Woodham, a teen with a troubled past, walked into Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss., just after 8 a.m. and opened fire with a rifle, killing two teenage girls and wounding seven others. Before coming to school, he killed his own mother. He has now been sentenced to life in prison for these shocking crimes.
On that horrible morning, I had taken my son, Drew, to the high school and then returned home to get ready for work. As I was getting dressed, the police department called me and ordered me to the high school to respond to a shooting because I serve as police department chaplain.
It was immediately personal, because my son was there. It was immediately a church problem, because most of the youth in the church that I pastor attend there. It was immediately a community problem, because teachers, police officers and most of the people of Pearl had family in that school. The shooting began what would become one of the longest days we have ever lived.
What happened in Pearl can happen in your town. As a matter of fact, school shootings occurred over the subsequent months around the country after the Pearl shooting.
What can a church and a community do to be ready for such a tragedy? You must do two things to be ready for a major crisis in your town, city, or community.
First, acknowledge that tragedy on the magnitude of a school shooting can happen anywhere. No community wants to believe that a major crisis and such a senseless act could happen in their schools. Unfortunately, it seems that we have turned a page in our society where some very troubled people choose vicious acts of violence to act out their frustrations. We must not ignore this horrible possibility.
Second, work with people in your church and community to prepare a crisis response plan. Your first response is going to be determined by your preparation or lack thereof. It is true that we can never fully prepare ourselves for the emotional impact of such an experience. I believe, though, that we can prepare in advance some plans that will enable us to respond in a helpful manner in spite of the emotional baggage. Having lived through one of the worst tragedies of my personal ministry, let me suggest some items to consider in your crisis plan.
Make arrangements in advance with community leaders in areas of city administration, law enforcement, emergency services and hospitals to be involved as a pre-approved helping group, responsible for specific tasks. The pre-approval of these caring tasks will ensure a smoother response to a crisis without interfering with critical communications during the crisis.
During a crisis, phones are jammed and everyone is desperately busy. Preparing in advance and having prior permission to do certain things enables people who are in leadership the freedom to answer other questions and meet other needs. Determine what your church can do to help, and then arrange to do just those things.
What kind of help is needed? Any kind of servant ministry that meets a need will be greatly appreciated. Consider the following needs that arose from the Pearl shooting:
— A gathering place. Your church might consider offering its facilities as a people center. Managing the tremendous numbers of people who come out to a school shooting is a major problem and concern for people in law enforcement, emergency services and hospitals.
In Pearl, we were amazed at how quickly parents, relatives and curiosity seekers arrived at the school after the shooting. Offering your worship center as an alternative gathering place for students, teachers and parents might prove to be helpful to the school or to law enforcement, as smaller numbers of people would flock to the school and to the police department. Your church will have to work out the details with the appropriate persons in your community for this to be effective.
A further advantage of using your church as a people center is that information can be communicated more effectively to groups of people with less chance of rumors and incorrect information being passed along.
— Comfort. Providing comfort to hurting people also can be prearranged. This comfort comes in a variety of packages. After the shooting at Pearl High School, large numbers of students, teachers and parents arrived at the police department to give statements. Though the adults had coffee to drink, there were very few creature comforts for teenagers. Our church provided a van-load of cold drinks that were quickly consumed by the teenagers who were there. Rendering such aid may seem small before a crisis, but it will be deeply appreciated during the crisis, especially by a teen who cannot stop shaking from fear.
— Counseling. Offering qualified counselors in advance is also important. People who are trained in crisis intervention counseling are a prized group during such a tragedy. You can be trained in this counseling. Every minister should obtain this training because it will help you in your own ministry and be valuable to other agencies in the event of a crisis. Usually this training can be obtained by contacting law enforcement agencies. In addition to receiving training yourself, keep on hand a list of qualified counselors who likely would be available to help in such an emergency.
— Transportation. A crisis like a school shooting will stretch the resources of any law enforcement agency. Using church vans to transport parents of students who may be stranded at home with no vehicle or for any transportation needed by the police department in a support role could be helpful. Again, advance planning is the key.
— Ministry and care. Your church must supply ministry and care to its membership during a crisis situation. This ministry will also have the potential to be valuable beyond your own membership. In the event of a school shooting, try to gather your student group together, if possible, on the same day. Let them talk and express their feelings without being judged for what they say.
Do not neglect the valuable role that youth Sunday school workers can play in such a situation. The teenagers know, love and trust them. Just being present to hug a child is a valuable ministry. Remind them of the hope, security and faithfulness of God. Continue on a weekly basis to compare notes with other adult workers to make sure the needs of all your youth are being met.
Adults will need ministry, too. The Sunday after the shooting at the high school, my message was a conversation with our people that addressed the feelings of helplessness, fear, guilt and anxiety that people were feeling. You may find a large attendance takes place on this Sunday. This one service was also the last time that we focused a large amount of worship time on the crisis. There is a need to move on and do more one-on-one sharing with people and to allow healing to happen. Worship needs to return to a joyful celebration of a risen Christ!
You will find that the youth in your church and community get tired of being spotlighted in the tragedy. They desire for life to return to normal as soon as possible. Allow that to happen.
Two more needs that will require your attention are:
— Exercise a great deal of restraint and caution with the news media. Within 48 hours of our shooting, my office door was literally covered with phone messages from media personnel. We essentially banned the media from our property for the first 30 days to create a “safe” zone for our families. After that period elapsed, much of the media hype had decreased and we were able to have good exchanges with the media. We did make media statements during the first 30 days. This requires you to know who your spokesperson will be. If you do not select a media spokesperson, you may find a well-meaning but misinformed member of your church speaking for you. This is not something you can take lightly. Rumor control in a school shooting requires a major effort on the part of all responsible people. Remind your youth and parents that if they do not know something as a fact, they should not speak of it. The same is true for ministers!
— Provide adequate care for caregivers. After two weeks of dealing with the most horrible tragedy I have ever endured, I had to seek out help for my own emotions and get some rest.
The needs and demands of people involved in a school shooting will outlast your ability to care. Pace yourself after the first two or three days. Endurance is needed so that ministry can carry on beyond the first few days. Your ministry staff and other caregivers need to know that they cannot endure all the pain and emotions of others without support. Caregivers, law enforcement, EMS workers and persons who have been involved in a crisis need crisis intervention counseling to sort through the many feelings that will emerge. Three common feelings that will emerge are fear, guilt and anger. In Pearl, we had many students and faculty who expressed these feelings.
Guilt can be one of the most difficult feelings to process. There were people who felt guilty because they did not tackle the gunman, others who felt guilty because they ran to classrooms, still others who felt guilty for not saving the lives of the two girls who died and others who felt guilty because they were glad their own children who were students at the school did not get hurt.
All of these are normal responses to a tragedy. They are not wrong responses, but they must be dealt with and moved through. Avoid being judgmental during those first times of honest sharing. If a person says he or she hates the shooter on the first day, then accept that as a first-day emotion. As you continue, help the person understand that one has to move on beyond those initial feelings. If you cut a person off in those first expressions, he may never open up to anyone again.
It is my prayer that a school shooting will never happen again in this nation. Yet, common sense and a look at our society suggest that another incident will happen. Please take the time as a church to plan a response.
Meet with your local law enforcement leaders, community leaders and other emergency services personnel to help establish some prearranged responses in the event of a crisis.
Conduct appropriate education in your church that will help your parents understand what is going on in their teens’ lives. Provide conferences/seminars on cults (if needed) and on violence and grief.
Encourage parents to truly spend time with their children. There is no substitute for a present parent! Suggest that they know their child’s room (be familiar with posters and other objects of interest to the child); listen to their song lyrics.
Beginning with parents and branching out to the community, everyone must be involved to prevent or respond to a crisis on the magnitude of a school shooting. May God bless all our efforts!

    About the Author

  • Tommy Mitchell