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Oliver teachers return to building a week after student killed outside of school

Pittsburgh Public Schools' Oliver Citywide Academy on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Public Schools' Oliver Citywide Academy on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

Oliver Citywide Academy staff were given the option to work remotely or in-person on Monday and Tuesday, but are to report to the building today — one week after 15-year-old Marquis Campbell was shot and killed in front of the North Side school.

Students are to return to in-person learning Feb. 2, two weeks after the shooting.

While the district said in a press release that the school will undergo a “gradual reentry process to allow students, staff and families time to process grief and trauma following last week’s tragedy,” it has not responded to multiple WESA requests over several days asking what specific support has been offered to students and staff before they return.

Oliver serves students in 3rd through 12th grades who have Individualized Education Plans — or IEPs — which guide special-education learning. According to the district’s website, the school is a full-time special education center with a “school-wide behavioral management system to support the positive behavioral support plans for each student."

According to a district release, staff will use the rest of this week to “review individual student safety, crisis management, and therapeutic crisis intervention plans with family input before students return for in-person instruction.” That will include small and individual counseling sessions for students “as needed,” according to the release.

“It is crucial that we leverage the expertise of the school’s educators to inform a reentry plan that lessens the re-traumatization of our students,” said interim superintendent Wayne Walters in the release.

Having a communication plan is key, according to Tammy Hughes, a school psychologist and Duquesne University professor. She said that it’s crucial that adults know that students will look to them for guidance on how to react.

“So parents and our school personnel … they can help kids to feel safe by explaining to them what happened, by reassuring them that they’re safe and giving them time to talk,” she said.

While the district hasn’t specified if grief counselors were available to students and staff, Hughes said that they should be on hand to help kids process a traumatic event.

“The reason we have grief counselors is we’re providing a space with people who are trained in listening to kids,” she said. “So grief counselors absolutely should be available.”

She said it’s the job of the educators and parents to determine who needs that support now or in the coming months. She said it’s important to allow conversations outside of grief counseling to be organic — rather than having them take place in an assembly, for example. Students should be empowered to recognize and express their emotions.

“The idea is to say, ‘Any feeling you have is fine and now we’re going to figure out how to express that feeling and who is going to be able to help you with that,'” she said.

She noted that teachers are at risk of secondary or vicarious trauma and need support from administrators.

“The idea is not, if you’re having a hard time, go home or take a personal day," she said. "It’s ‘of course, we’re all having a hard time.’ And the same leeway that you give to children and all people when they experience tragedy, we recognize that different people are going to have different responses." And administrators, she said, should be sure they are “giving teachers that grace as well.”

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said that the union recommends that Oliver staff use the Employee Assistance Program provided by the district, which includes mental health support. The district administrator who oversees the program did not respond to requests for comment.