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How Wilkinsburg Schools Can Help Students Cope With Tragedy

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

Updated 4:35 p.m. March 14, 2016.

Robert Morris, 15, glanced across the street and back down.

“I think everybody’s just a little tense right now,” the Propel Braddock Hills High School freshman said. 

Morris heard the gun shots before 11 p.m. Wednesday while watching television with his dad. He rolled off the couch into a ball, "to make myself as small as possible," he said.

Describing the scene, Morris looked again across the street where police say six people died from gunshot wounds sustained in an ambush-style attack.

Morris and his father, Carl, said there were several children at the house when the shooting took place. Everyone ran from gunfire in the backyard toward the house, where police say they were picked off one by one. 

“I hear the kids come out (front) and they’re screaming for their parents,” the younger Morris said.

Investigators and media flooded the neighborhood until dawn, but Morris said he went to school anyway. By second period science, he couldn't take it anymore.

"I just needed to go home," he said.

Jennifer Phillip, program manager for prevention at Pittsburgh-based crisis and counseling center FamilyLinks, said first responders and crisis teams regularly visit schools in need of grief counseling before and after violence strikes.

Usually visits are best one-on-one, Phillip said. And often, one visit is not enough. 

"They can feel angry. They can feel sad (or) frustrated," she said. "We try to put meaning on those feelings and follow up with them."

Especially if the child lost someone important in their lives or through traumatic incidents.

“We still talk about it and the importance of that person and the role that person played in our lives or maybe our sister’s lives or our brother’s lives," Phillip said. "It may be a friend of a friend, but it still touches us in the same way. Grief is grief; a loss is a loss.”

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
Wilkinsburg School District's crisis management team convened Wednesday night after gunmen killed five people - one who was pregnant. Schools stayed open Thursday.

Counselors with the Center for Victims were available for students and families at Braddock Hills Propel on Thursday and Friday, spokeswoman Kelly Wall said.

“Unfortunately, for many students it was also something that they’ve experienced too many times or heard about too many times,” said Braddock Hills Propel Principal Pat Coyle. “Sometimes just hearing about this trauma, even if they weren’t even indirectly affected, brings up old trauma of their own.” 

At the beginning of this school year, Braddock Hills Propel also started a social emotional program called Crew, where a group of students meet with a teacher daily for two years to talk about their lives. Coyle said those meeting will help students normalize their feelings and process a situation like the Wilkinsburg shooting.

“Students feel comfortable going to either those counselors, or those crew leaders to ask for help or to talk about problems that they’re having,” Coyle said. 

Michael Fulmore, Wilkinsburg High School’s dean of discipline, said when there’s a tragedy, it’s best for children to return to a regular pattern. 

“A lot of kids view the school as a safe place,” he said. “They come here because they know there are people here that care about them, and this is a big part of their everyday life."

Administrators try to maintain some normalcy, he said. Fulmore is also the football coach. Last fall, about one-third of his players missed practice for the funeral of a friend who was shot and killed. 

"So this remains to be a safe place and somewhere they can come and have what everybody needs, you know, somebody to care about them where there is food, shelter (and) warmth,” he said.

The school’s acting principal, Shawn Johnston, agreed. 

She said the district is also prepared to reach out to experts for help if students are still having trouble grieving and understanding what happened.

“After the funerals, you will need some support, because then it will be reality for students who aren’t able to process it right now,” Johnston said.

Wilkinsburg High School is also in transition. Next year students will attend Westinghouse Academy in the Pittsburgh School District. 

“It’s a lot of things emotionally being thrown at the children and staff," Johnston said. "So we’re taking it one day at a time.”

90.5 WESA reporters Deanna Garcia and Sarah Schneider contributed to this report.