Longform

The Wide World of Grief

Page 5 of 10

Not that Mosley is rusty: As a participant in Disaster Services Human Resources (DSHR), the Red Cross's national system for disaster response, he traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Georges struck the island in 1998 and pulled similar duty last fall in North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. "I commit myself to a block of time every year," he notes, "because when there's something of that scope, the needs are tremendous."

The Red Cross isn't the only group with a squad of counselors ready to jet off to far-flung locales at a moment's notice. In the event of a major outbreak of on-campus violence (of which Columbine is, for the moment, at least, the most extreme American example), the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Association of School Psychologists is prepared to respond via the National Emergency Assistance Team, or NEAT.

Dr. Theodore Feinberg, the assistant executive director of the association, says that the Oklahoma City bombing established the need for NEAT. "There were so many children involved in that terrible tragedy," he says, "and two school psychologists from Oklahoma called our office in Bethesda asking for help. Then, after sending one of our members out to do what he could, we developed a group of individuals who had prior experience with major crises in the country to be available for communities in these kinds of situations." Feinberg was a natural choice, having volunteered for the Red Cross during flooding in the Midwest back in 1993, and his cohorts sported similar backgrounds: Two had counseled victims of hurricanes in Florida, and a third was a veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he'd had to deal with multiple shootings, suicides and no shortage of other unpleasantness.

A couple of years later, the rash of school shootings began in earnest -- so many of them that they began to be referred to by their settings: West Paducah, Kentucky (a fourteen-year-old student killed three classmates and wounded five); Jonesboro, Arkansas (two boys, ages thirteen and eleven, killed four students and a teacher, leaving ten wounded); Springfield, Oregon (a seventeen-year-old killed his parents and two students, and wounded more than twenty innocent bystanders). NEAT representatives -- at present, there are seven of them -- raced to all these scenes as well as numerous others where the carnage wasn't quite so voluminous: Flint, Michigan, where a seven-year old murdered a six -year-old student in February, and Lakeworth, Florida, which made news in May because a thirteen-year-old took the life of a teacher who'd chastised him for tossing a water balloon earlier that day. And Feinberg himself traveled to Littleton after the April 1999 assault on Columbine, when the media's fervor reached a new high.

An example? The first thing Feinberg was asked to do upon arriving in town was hold a press conference. "There must have been journalists from thirty different broadcast and print organizations there," he recalls. "And they had been there for quite a while."

Whether the coverage fed the citizenry's distress Feinberg can't say, but when he oversaw a community meeting the second day after his arrival, "we were very surprised by the turnout. We expected a reasonable number of people; sometimes we've had as few as 25 people, 50 people, and the most we'd had was in Jonesboro, where we had 600. But in Columbine, we had 3,000. It was a very moving experience." He particularly remembers a conversation with a husband and wife whose son had been present in the school when the gunfire started but who had to that point refused to open up about his feelings -- "and as he was telling me about it, suddenly the father broke into uncontrollable tears."

Of course, Feinberg realized he would only be in the Littleton area for a short time and would be unable to counsel the family himself. But he was confident that there were others who could provide what they needed. "I told him that there was an extensive network of resources available to him right there in his area. Extensive."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts