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How Highland Park Schools Became Healing Centers After the 4th of July Shooting

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Stephanie Diaz was at a debate camp three hours from her hometown of Highland Park, Illinois, when she got a text from her boyfriend:

“Maybe after a while you will see something on the news, but we are safe. I will get more details later, but everyone is safe.”

“Wait, what’s going on,” she replied.

“Maybe there was a shooting downtown, at the parade we were just at.”

A rising junior at Highland Park High School took to social media to confirm that a gunman opened fire on a crowd of Fourth of July parade participants. She immediately checked on her family members — including her mother, who works at a Potbelly less than half a block from the parade route.

Her mother was escorted from the sandwich shop to the car. Safe. Her brother was away that weekend. Safe. Her father, a truck driver, was not there. Safe.

Still, the 16-year-old couldn’t sit still for 200 miles.

“All I wanted to do was go home and be with my family and see them,” Diaz said. “The most terrifying thought was that I could lose them in an instant.”

The next morning, she was volunteering at her high school as school officials helped provide crisis support to a grieving community struggling with the trauma that had gripped the suburb 27 miles north of downtown Chicago.

In the wake of the Independence Day shooting that killed seven and injured more than 30, District 113 and District 112 turned their schools into shelters for students, staff, families and other Highland Park residents, offering mental health services and support another community affected by gun violence.

The response in Highland Park is an example of how schools across the country have often been on the front lines of helping students and the wider community deal with the consequences of mass shootings and rising gun violence.

As a result of the shooting on Independence Day, seven people were killed and more than 30 were injured. The traumatic events in Highland Park came less than two months after two other high-profile mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uwald, Texas.

Brian Casella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Highland Park shooting comes less than two months after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers Rob Primary School in Uwald, Texas, and a supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York, just 10 days earlier, 10 were killed and three were injured. In general, more than 300 mass shootings have taken place in the US so far in 2022, according to the Washington Post.

In addition to high-profile mass shootings, gun violence is on the rise recent years. And students in big cities have had to deal with gun violence seeping into schools without the resources to address lingering trauma.

In Chicago, union leaders, parents and students have long called for more mental health services to deal with the troubling effects of gun violence on the South and West sides.

Starting in the spring of 2021, Chicago Public Schools is working to expand its network of trauma teams, including gun violence. But parents, teachers and students say more is needed.

In Highland Park, officials from Precincts 113 and 112 responded quickly to the shooting. Within hours, they announced plans to offer trauma services at Highland Park High School and Deerfield High School, said Karen Warner, District 113 communications director.

Over the next two days, district staff and more than 30 neighborhood counselors served about 600 people, Warner said in an email.

“We know this incident will have a profound impact on the community for a long time,” Warner said.

An 8-year-old boy was among the victims Cooper Roberts, who remained in critical condition days after being shot in the chest and having his spinal cord severed. His twin brother and mother, Kiley Roberts, superintendent of Zion Elementary School District 6, were also injured in the shooting.

Chicago Public Schools teacher Zoya Kolpak, her husband, father and brother-in-law attended the parade and were among the dozens injured. CPS officials have been in contact with Kolpack, and their crisis team and help desk were available to support Kolpack’s colleagues and students from William Dever Elementary staff, according to a statement posted on Twitter.

“Chicago Public Schools is shocked to learn that one of our CPS teachers and her family members were among those injured in Monday’s mass shooting in Highland Park.” district said in Statement from July 5.

Chicago Public Schools often sends mental health and crisis services to individual schools affected by gun violence, but staff and families have advocated for more permanent support.

Last month, teacher Jessie Hudson stood outside Jacob Beidler Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side and called on the district to bolster schools with additional counselors and social workers to help students deal with the effects of gun violence in the neighborhood. Hudson, along with union leaders, teachers, parents and students, held a vigil in memory of students who have died in gun violence over the past year.

“Our kids need counselors at school more often,” Hudson said. “Our children need psychologists at school more often. I’m not a psychologist – I’m a teacher, so I try to stay in my lane. But I want to give them as much of myself as possible so that they have someone to talk to.”

In Highland Park, residents are still trying to come to terms with the mass shooting that thrust their suburb into the national spotlight.

North Shore School District 112which serves students at Highland Park Elementary School and nearby Highwood, moved its counselors from Highland Park Middle School last week and opened two of its schools to provide early childhood counseling services.

As part of the community fabric, school leaders needed to “step up” with “caring, love and compassion” to serve the community, said Michael Lubelfeld, District 112 superintendent.

The emergency response was to deal with the “immediate outpouring of grief, fear, confusion, anger and the need for some kind of support,” Lubelfeld said.

In recent years, Lubelfield said, the county has seen an increase in the number of therapists, counselors and social workers to address social-emotional issues that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. The Uvalde shooting only reinforced the need for more support, he added.

Although the Highland Park shooting did not take place at a school, “it destroyed the innocence of our community — and it has a ripple effect on our schools,” Labelfield said. “Schools are the front line for society’s children.”

“We are at the forefront of everything that happens in society – good or bad,” he added. “And now every school should have therapists on site.”

The FBI’s Victim Response Team also set up a family assistance center at Highland Park High School to offer additional trauma counseling, public assistance and financial assistance, said Chris Covelli, deputy chief of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.

Governor of Illinois J. B. Pritzker also issued a disaster declaration for Lake County, prompting the use of state resources, personnel or equipment to assist in rebuilding Highland Park.

“There are no words for the evil that turns a community celebration into a tragedy,” Pritzker said in a press statement. “As we grieve together, the state of Illinois will provide all available resources to Highland Park and the surrounding communities in the coming days and weeks as the community works to recover from this terrible tragedy.”

Vice President Kamala Harris hugs the mayor of Highland Park after the mass shooting.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who hugs Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rothering, urged residents to seek the support they need in the wake of the tragedy.

Kamil Kszczynski/AFP via Getty Images

Vice President Kamala Harris visited the scene of the massacre the day after the shooting and offered her condolences to the Highland Park community, saying the nation must take it seriously.

“I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through,” Harris said. “This should never have happened.”

Harris said the Biden administration will continue to provide “all of its resources” for the mayor, police chief and others.

According to Harris, there would be “a lot of healing to do,” physically and emotionally, after the injury.

“There’s no question that this experience will linger in terms of trauma,” Harris said, while urging all families and individuals to seek the support “that you rightfully deserve.”

The day after the shooting, families filed out of the doors of Highland Park High School, some hugging, others wiping tears from their eyes or rubbing a loved one’s back for comfort. Small children came out with large stuffed animals or small plastic bags filled with various objects.

A man, woman and two young children were camped out on a patch of grass nearby, eating tacos from a food truck, handing out free food to community members making their way to and from the high school.

A man in the group declined an interview request, saying in Spanish, “I’ve been talking all day and I just want to come to terms with what happened.”

Standing outside the school, Rabbi Anne Persin said three of her congregants were injured and two remained in hospital. Still in shock, Persin said she is doing her best to provide a spiritual mentor to her parishioners.

“I don’t want thoughts and prayers. I want action,” Persin said, adding that if the shooter obtained the weapon legally, “then the laws are wrong.”

Grief counselors and social workers at the school provided mental health services and support for staff, students and families, according to a Highland Park High School teacher. Chalkbeat is not releasing the teacher’s name because they did not have permission from the district to speak to the press.

Therapy dogs have also been brought in to support community members visiting for services.

The teacher said that many students, parents and family members of the victims showed up for crisis counseling last week. Employees also came to be with each other.

“Everybody processes it differently,” the teacher said, “and I think we’re trying to figure it out together.”

Teenagers light candles at a memorial for the victims of the mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, surrounded by bouquets of flowers.

At Highland Park High School, counselors and social workers provided support and counsel to members of their school community in crisis situations.

Chris Schweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The teacher emphasized that they wanted to make sure there was an open door for the students to process the events – through individual therapies or play therapies for younger children.

Giselle Ramillo, whose husband works in Precinct 113, said county officials did a great job responding to the shooting.

“It’s a good start,” said Ramillo, a teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High Schools.

“I think there should be some kind of professional development at the beginning of the school year for teachers, students and the community to be able to talk about what they’re thinking and feeling,” she said. “I think people are scared and nervous right now.”

Stephanie Diaz, a Highland Park student who returned from the camp, also appreciates the resources that flow into the community.

“It’s amazing that so many volunteers came out to help,” she said. “Personally, I have never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen our community do anything like this.”

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Maurizio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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