It was a teacher’s worst fear realized; we had an active shooter on campus. Forest High School was spared that day from loss of life, but for the 2,184 students on our campus, the nightmare of having shots fired and the blood of a classmate spilled created severe emotional trauma. That day was a surreal experience: SWAT teams sweeping through our hallways, walking my class with arms above our heads through a gauntlet of officers, riding the bus to an off-campus reunification location. It was a lot for me to take in as a teacher, but I could see by looking at the faces of my students that many of them were in shock, and for most of them, this was the worst day of their life. Even though only one student suffered injuries, the emotional stress of being locked down with an active shooter was a lot to recover from. My wife—the student council adviser—and I knew that we had to do something, and students needed to lead the charge.

Contact Your Student Leaders

The day of the shooting also happened to be the day of our seniors’ trip to Universal Studios Florida. We worked quickly, using social media and text chains to get the information out that although the superintendent had cancelled all after-school activities in the county, we would still go on our planned trip. While on the trip, we talked to the NHS and student council officers to see how they were doing. They knew that they wanted to do something to help the school, but weren’t sure what they could do. We organized a meeting that weekend so everyone had time to process and so we could create a plan together. The use of the Remind app allowed us to communicate quickly and easily to all of our NHS members.

On Sunday we met at a local coffee shop to discuss the plan of action. Our kids decided to show support for our first responders, and they wanted to encourage the community to do the same.

Make Your Message Positive, Not Political

Individual students have the right to advocate for any message they want. Our student leadership made the decision early on that, as a school, we wanted our message to be inclusive—not divisive. Later, individuals would organize their own demonstrations, but being a rural high school in the South, any message that was political—no matter how well-intentioned—would create friction at a time when healing was needed. The students decided on a few key things to support our student body that week:

  • Welcoming students to school on Monday
  • Wearing blue to support first responders on Tuesday
  • Creating a thank-you assembly for Wednesday
  • Inviting the community to wear green on “Forest Friday”

One of our students created a T-shirt that demonstrated the resolve of our student body. The phrase “We Are One. We Are Strong. We Are Forest.” was chosen to be on the front of the shirt with our school logo and the date of the event on the back with #ForestStrong underneath. With their message now focused, we prepared for the next week.

Reach Out to Nonmembers

Although student council and NHS spearheaded these initiatives, total school buy-in would take the involvement of all student leaders on campus. While at the aforementioned meeting, we made a list of students who were leaders in different spheres on campus and reached out to them with our message. We relied heavily on our clubs and sports teams, but also reached out to students who were in different groups on campus. We wanted to make sure that all corners of our large school were part of this healing process.

Support Your Students the Next Day

The biggest initial challenge we faced was how to help students return to school on Monday. “We are Forest” is a common chant among the students at sporting events and gatherings. Many students feel that our campus is a second home. How would our students handle returning to a place that now had haunting memories? With help from our student leaders, we had more than 80 students arrive to campus early on Monday to greet every student in the car line and off the bus with a smile, and sometimes even a hug. As the morning progressed, other students joined in welcoming everyone back. There were many tears that day, but the first thing that every student saw and felt was that someone was there to support them.

Have a Healing Moment

The decision to have an assembly to thank first responders was a great idea by our NHS and student council officers. We worked nonstop for 48 hours to get representatives from all 10 agencies that responded, as well as soliciting community organizations to donate food, time, and money that day. It total, more than 200 people were honored in a 30-minute assembly in the gym with the entire student body present. The assembly was student-led, with our student council president having the only speaking role representing the school. We decided not to involve our administration so that it was authentically an event created by and run by our student body. Our 2,100-plus students cheered as she called out each of the organizations that responded to our distress call. This exuberance by our student body was a release of some of the negative energy that was still festering in so many students. Students commented that the assembly allowed them to channel the emotion of helplessness and fear of the past week into a tone of appreciation for those who were there for us when we needed them most.

Bring in the Community

For the entire week, our NHS members promoted via social media and word of mouth to wear green in support of “Forest Friday.” This was not just at our school. Throughout the community, people were planning to wear green to show our students that they were not alone. Other schools, local businesses, and even national chains were wearing green and posting pictures with #ForestFriday across social media. Thousands of people in the community, parents, alumni, and rival schools proudly wore green in support. The support for our students even went international with extended friends and family around the globe creating posts with #ForestFriday on them. With this event, our students gained support and a bit of closure from the horrific event just seven days earlier. It was important to our students that this did not linger on and that there was a finality to it.

Check for Those Who May Still Be Hurting

Although the majority of our students recovered from that day, we knew that not all students would bounce back as quickly. Events such as a school shooting can trigger emotional response from an earlier trauma, similar to opening an old wound. Our NHS and student council representatives kept a vigilant eye out for anyone who might still be dealing with the stress of that day. Just talking to someone who is alone or looks sad can be life-changing. The next year, we instituted a program called “No One Eats Alone” that a student had seen online from another school. For the first two weeks of school the following year, not a single student on campus was seen alone at lunch. Some of our members who wanted to do even more created a Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE) club on campus that works to improve the climate and culture of our school.

Creation of “The Rock”

Our county is fortunate to have a very involved community. A local restaurant owner created a room in another high school called “The Rock.” At that school, The Rock helped to meet the physical needs of students in poverty by providing food, clothing, and personal hygiene products free of charge. That summer he approached our school with the idea of turning the room of the shooting into our very own “Rock.” Rather than focus on our students’ physical needs, this rock would be there for our students’ emotional needs. Today, volunteers from our local community staff The Rock for three hours a day, and students know they can go there to talk about their problems and stressors in life. It has been a place where students who are in crisis know they can find someone to listen to them and help.

Reflect on the Positive

One year later, there was trepidation on campus about how students, faculty, and staff would feel as the anniversary date of the incident approached. Our principal once again turned to NHS to assist our school in leading the student body. Rather than focus on what happened that day, we chose instead to focus on the support we felt in the aftermath. “Forest Gives Back” is now an annual tradition where our students go into the community for a day of service. Assisting at nursing homes, roadside cleanups, and Habitat for Humanity are just a few of the projects that we are involved with. Students from Forest High School performed more than 1,000 hours of community service that day alone.

No one can truly be prepared for the tsunami of emotions that one feels during and after an active shooter incident. I know that I still have trouble sometimes coming to terms with what happened that day. I think that the most important lesson from this experience is that you must let your students lead and trust that they will rise to the occasion. To authentically support your student body, you need to let students be at the heart of the solution.

John Crawford is the magnet coordinator, AP U.S. Government and macroeconomics teacher, and NHS adviser at Forest High School in Ocala, FL.