Principals who experienced gun violence unite to help schools undergoing new tragedies

The number of schools that have now dealt with a shooting or a mass shooting keeps growing. And because of that there's a group of school principals known as the Principal Recovery Network. They have dealt with these events and help other schools after tragedies. One member is George Roberts, who was the principal at a Maryland school during a 2012 shooting. He joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    This isn't the first time survivors of a school shooting have testified before Congress or made similar pleas for changing our gun laws. But, sadly, the number of schools that have experienced these traumas keeps growing. And because of that, there's now a group of principals known as the Principal Recovery Network. They have dealt with these tragedies themselves, and they help other schools when needed.

    My next guest is one of them. Back in 2012, at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore county, a 15-year-old student brought a shotgun to school and opened fire in the cafeteria, shooting another student. George Roberts was the principal back then. He's now the community superintendent for Baltimore County Public Schools.

    George Roberts, thank you so much for being here.

    I wonder, could you help us understand, how did this network first come about? Was this just a function of a bunch of principals realized all these tragedies keep happening, and we have got to help each other out?

  • George Roberts,┬áCommunity Superintendent, Baltimore County Public Schools:

    Yes, that's exactly how it came about.

    And, first, thank you for having me on and allowing us to share the work of the Principal Recovery Network.

    Yes, it really just began as an informal network. It was — we had gone through school shootings, certainly, since the early 2000s and well before that. But, after my shooting, I was contacted by Mr. Bill Bond, who was a principal in Paducah, Kentucky, at Heath High School. And he simply left a voice-mail message for me.

    Of the hundreds of calls that the school was receiving, he was one of those who simply said: "When you're ready, I have been through this. Give me a call."

    And from there, really, the rest is history. I reached out to him. We formed a relationship over the phone. He was gracious enough. As he was working with the National Association of Secondary School Principals at the time, NASSP, he was able to fly out to Baltimore, and he was able to spend a few days with me and my staff, and really talking us through the emotions we were having, and some of the things we can anticipate.

    And really, from there, it was just connections that we made. I was able to meet Frank DeAngelis and several other principals who had gone through school shootings through that time in 2012. And then that informal network really consolidated into the formal Principal Recovery Network in 2018.

  • William Brangham:

    When this — I mean, I know a principal has so many hats to wear and so many jobs to do. When this shooting happened at your own school, did you know what to do? Did you know how to respond, or how was that for you?

  • George Roberts:

    Yes.

    No, I didn't know how to respond. And, as educators, though now it's pretty standard practice to receive training. We had our standard drills for fire drills and for certain emergency drills, but, at that time, active shooter drills, in 2012, were not the norm, were not the integrated drill practices that we had.

    So, after that shooter in my school, I didn't know. I didn't have a guide. I didn't have a playbook, if you will, as to what to do and who to call and who to rely on. I certainly had a lot of support from my school system and from the school system leadership in 2012, and then, from there, circling out to the greater community and then certainly with NASSP. But, no, I did not know. I learned it as I went along.

  • William Brangham:

    I don't know if your network, your colleagues have been in touch with the principal at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, can you give us a sense of what those conversations are like? What is it — what kind of counsel are you offering to that poor principal right now?

  • George Roberts:

    Yes.

    So, certainly, as the name denotes, the Principal Recovery Network, really, our mission is to support principals and help them lead through these tragic events. So, really, that process really begins with a message left on the machine of the school, similar to us as it was for me.

    Once that connection is made, the first thing we try to do is really just make sure, is the principal OK? It's one of the first questions we're going to ask: How are you? How are you feeling? What is your support network? Talk to me a little bit about who is supporting you at home, who's supporting you within the school district or within your school community, because, really, a principal is only going to be as effective leading through the recovery, as they are feeling and as they're working through their own trauma.

    So we really support that principal, and really asking questions around how they're feeling, getting them together with certain resources within the community or offering suggestions. And then, from there, as you continue to have more conversations, it goes into, here are some of the things you might be able to expect over the next couple of weeks, over the next couple of months.

    And then, really, we start talking about what's going to happen over the next six months, 12 months, 18 months, because, as the media go about their business, and as the world continues to move on, that principal is left with leading the recovery within their school community, not just working with the families of the victims, if there are victims, but also those of the survivors and the students who survived and have to live through this moving forward.

  • William Brangham:

    As you well know, there is a — an ongoing debate right now about how to protect schools.

    And some people are arguing, we have to harden schools. We have to limit the number of entrances and exits. And we need to train more people to carry weapons and to give them weapons inside the school to protect students. What do you make of that idea?

  • George Roberts:

    Yes.

    No, my personal belief on that is, we are educators first. We are not trained law enforcement officials. We are trained to educate children, to love children, and to help them grow and mature as young adults. So, arming teachers is not something that I believe will help this situation at all.

  • William Brangham:

    What kinds of people or individuals do you want in the school then to protect kids?

  • George Roberts:

    I think a strong partnership with the local police department through a school resource officer program is a wonderful way to tie together law enforcement and education in a productive, in a safe way, and to build positive relationships with kids.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a wonderful thing you're doing for principals, but also a very sad statement about our country right now.

    George Roberts, thank you so much for being here.

  • George Roberts:

    Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

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