If they can’t prevent gun violence in their schools, school officials can try to provide help to schools that experience it.
Finding helpful resources is why Dr. Matthew Hicks joined a lobbying mission with others who have experienced gun violence in their schools. In a June trip to Washington, D.C., Hicks joined the former principal at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the current principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
It’s the third time Hicks, the Northeastern Wayne School Corp. superintendent, has visited with members of Congress to lobby for continuing disaster relief and increased support for school safety and mental health services. This trip also included visits with members of federal executive departments.
Before he came to Northeastern in August 2018, Hicks was assistant principal at Noblesville West Middle School, which experienced a shooting in the spring of that year. Helping others deal with similar situations has become part of his life mission since then, he said. He is part of the Principal Recovery Network, a national group of current and former school leaders who have experienced gun violence tragedies in their schools. The PRN is supported by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
The PRN seeks to assist the next principal who endures a shooting by reaching out directly to them to provide support, share the combined wisdom of their experience with the larger principal community through various outlets, assist schools during recovery and advocate for national school safety enhancements and violence prevention programs. Now that Homeland Security Investigations and the president’s team are aware of PRN, they can include it in resources available to aid in recovery, Hicks said.
In Washington, the group met with members of Congress to ask for policies to improve mental health, safety and learning in schools. They also met with representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and President Biden’s mental health teams.
Hicks spoke directly with Indiana Senators Todd Young and Mike Braun and with a legislative assistant for Rep. Greg Pence, who was in Iowa with the presidential campaign of his brother, Mike Pence.
Young and Braun always back funding for disaster relief, which helps schools not only in gun violence cases but also in recovery from natural disasters such as tornadoes. Young also seemed receptive to the idea of providing more resources for mental health services.
Redirecting some existing funds to provide mental health services could have direct effects for Northeastern schools, Hicks said.
“We are looking at entering into an expanded agreement with Centerstone (a mental health services agency) for more personnel to come and help our kids,” he said. Northeastern has provided expanded services using money that came as aid during the COVID pandemic, but it runs out next year. Northeastern is looking for funding to sustain and expand services.
Hicks noted that Northeastern, like many other schools, is experiencing a higher rate of behavior issues since the pandemic, especially among students in kindergarten to second grade.
“It has a lot to do with students not being in school. During the pandemic, unemployment went to 36% so we had kids at home with parents dealing with ‘How am I going to feed my family’ and we had a lot of families decide not to send children to school as early as possible,” he said.
While the Congress members generally agree that more mental health services should be offered, Congress also does not mandate school policies because that is the role of individual states, Hicks said. “But there are programs the federal government can get behind with funding.”
Hicks also valued talks with Homeland Security and the President’s Mental Health Team. Those groups, he said, had not been aware of the Principal Recovery Network program. The PRN will reach out when they learn of school shootings but often has trouble connecting with people at the affected schools.
“Long after the initial flood of resources and media attention has run dry, our community is still grappling with immense grief,” said Ty Thompson, former principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
As of early June, there had been 24 school shootings this year that resulted in 35 injuries or deaths, according to an Education Week analysis.
Ronn Nozoe, CEO of NASSP, said “Each member (of PRN) has lived every principal’s greatest fear. Despite this, they continue to show tremendous courage and selflessness by guiding their peers through these tragedies and advocating for systemic change.”
NASSP’s Survey of America’s School Leaders and High School Students found that 58% of school leaders and 53% of students are concerned about gun violence.
A version of this article appeared in the July 5 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.