By Bill Guy
First-grader Haley is comforted by trained therapy dog Anise from Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear,” reads a banner in front of Kelly Elementary School’s now placid student playground.
The quote reminds the school’s more than 500 students and their families, the 30 staff members who work at Kelly, and the nearby neighbors in Carlsbad, located in north San Diego County, of how their normal routines were interrupted by sounds of gunfire on the school’s playground at 12:10 p.m., Friday, Oct. 8. But it’s more than just a reminder of the traumatic event; it’s also an affirmation of the courageous response.
When a gunman police later identified as Oceanside resident Brendan O’Rourke, age 41, jumped the fence and began firing pistol shots into the playground filled with the school’s students in grades 1-3 and their teachers and aides, the response was courageous, resolved and disciplined, instead of panicked and chaotic.
While three construction workers who had been laying tile for the school’s cafeteria renovation tackled the lone shooter, the students and staff immediately put the school’s well-honed emergency plan into swift action. Within three minutes of the first shot, all students and staff — including two-second grade girls who had both been wounded in their right arms — were safely locked down out of harm’s way. In another five minutes, police and other first responders were on the scene, arresting the gunman and securing the campus. The injured students, whose wounds were not life-threatening, were promptly transported by helicopter to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. Within hours, the students were reunited with their anxious parents, and the school’s staff were debriefed and allowed to go home.
California law requires schools to have safety plans, and the staff and parent volunteers at Kelly take the requirement seriously, practicing their earthquake, fire and lockdown drills religiously. “You can’t allow the drills to become an inconvenience,” says Principal Tessie Armstrong. “We had practiced the lockdown routine — run to the first open room at the first sign of trouble — many times. We are so thankful the children and our staff knew exactly what to do.”
The Carlsbad Unified Teachers Association quickly initiated a series of association-coordinated responses to the crisis led by President Sally Estep.
“I didn’t wait for the district to call me,” says Estep. “I called them, saying that we wanted to help. I knew that the district’s crisis plan resources and community support would be in play, but on behalf of CUTA and the California Teachers Association, we wanted to anticipate and fill in any gaps.”
At a districtwide crisis meeting held to lay out an ongoing response plan, Estep learned from trauma counselors with the Trauma Intervention Program that it was imperative that the students and the staff be integrated as quickly as possible back into their normal school environment. The big question, though, was how best to facilitate the return to their school routine without forcing them back into the scene of the trauma too quickly.
After hearing about the shooting, a CUTA member called Estep to suggest the services of the Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response organization (hopeaacr.org). Estep quickly contacted the group, learning that the national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization could provide teams of trained therapy dogs with trained counselor handlers to offer comfort and encouragement to those impacted by crisis. In coordination with Principal Armstrong and the Carlsbad Unified School District’s crisis coordinator Keith Holly, Estep arranged to provide Hope teams at the school beginning the week following the shooting.
For a period of two weeks, the CUTA-sponsored Hope teams of dogs and handlers were available during recess and lunch breaks to provide wordless warmth, quiet comfort and a brief respite for students and staff at the school. “The first day, the dogs and handlers were positioned in an athletic field nearby the playground shooting scene. But slowly and sensitively, they migrated, so that by the end of the day we had reclaimed our ‘space.’ It was magical,” says Armstrong.
In addition to coordinating the Hope teams’ visits, CUTA also worked with the school’s PTA members, who provided breakfast for two weeks following the shooting incident. CTA’s Traumatic Events Assistance and Management Cadre staff provided backup and assistance to Estep and other CUTA members during the first days following the event, with periodic follow-up in subsequent weeks.
“It was amazing to see how our association stood up for us, making sure we got exactly what we needed,” says Kelly third-grade teacher Taryn Webb.
Second-grade teacher Jana Scott says, “The association’s support by providing the Hope teams was so thoughtful. The kids loved the dogs, and it made it so much easier for us to go back out onto that playground. I don’t have words to express my thanks to Sally Estep and CUTA for helping make such a frightening experience more manageable.”