East Middle School will host a fair Monday with refreshments, student performances and another offering — a regular feature of Aurora Public Schools — a workshop on stress, personal safety and security.
School life here changed beginning with the first minutes of the Aurora movie-theater shooting July 20.
The district estimates that 150 current and former Aurora students, parents and school staff were at the Century Aurora 16 on the summer night when a gunman shot and killed 12 people and injured at least 58 others at a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."
A 2012 Gateway High School graduate, AJ Boik, was one of those killed. Micayla Medek, 23, also shot to death, had graduated from Hinkley High School.
The Connecticut school shooting Friday and the Oregon mall shooting Tuesday caused school staff — already vigilant for any evidence of student trauma — to reassure the community: "Our schools are safe. Students and families are not alone. Our staff members care."
The district's response to the movie massacre last summer was both immediate and prolonged. It has been a massive effort, including the hiring of a full-time recovery coordinator and creation of an APS Disaster Recovery website section. Private and government grants to the school district of almost $100,000 just begin to defray costs, which schools Superintendent John Barry said will hit $300,000 by the end of the school year.
"We are not the first responders," Barry said of school officials, "but we are the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and you name it."
As the semester came to an end Thursday , Barry said Aurora schools hadn't experienced any major incidents — suicides, disruptions or other emergencies.
"We made it through Thanksgiving. Now we're going through Christmas," he said. "These seasons are tough enough for some people without going through something like this. We are not out of the woods yet. We are very vigilant for signals for help."
Even before the shooting in Newtown, Conn., Friday that took 28 lives — those of 20 children, six school employees and the gunman and his mother — the six-month anniversary of the Aurora shooting loomed with all the inescapable reminders and emotional triggers for students. Barry understands firsthand — the retired fighter pilot and major general survived the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
His school district's role after the movie massacre was bigger than most knew. In the hours after the movie-theater shooting, the district opened nearby Gateway High School, where police interviewed witnesses and families gathered for news of their loved ones.
Gateway principal William Hedges got there at about 3:30 a.m. He soon knew that about 60 of his current and former students were at the theater that night.
"But everyone was affected," Hedges said. "We knew early on we had a big need to help our students and community. We were overwhelmed at first, but we got that help."
He said he was grateful for Barry's sensitive response and for the advice and support of the Aurora Mental Health Center, which experienced a 233 percent increase in calls for help over the next six weeks.
When police learned suspect James Holmes had explosives in his apartment across the street from Paris Elementary School, they evacuated his building and several around it.
Evacuees — all out of their homes for several days — included about 50 families with children at the school. Barry opened Aurora Central High School as a short-term shelter for them.
Hinkley and Rangeview high schools were used as disaster-recovery centers, where counselors worked with more than 50 people over three days.
"(Aurora Public Schools) was unusual in how proactive, thoughtful and comprehensive they were in their response," said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, a division of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
Barry had been preparing the district for a crisis for more than six years and had established a well-equipped Incident Response Team and command center in the staff conference room. It's wired to track everything from each school-bus location to latest media reports.
"We do two full-blown training exercises with more than 200 police and firefighters every year," he said. "Everybody's got a role in a disaster."
When there's a crisis, families turn to schools, Schonfeld said. That's where kids spend most of their days. Most see schools as havens.
The district held informational meetings for students' parents and other community groups, including 31 faith-based organizations. School officials helped plan memorials and attended funerals.
Through it all, Barry told people: "We will come out stronger in the end."
When classes started again Aug. 6, two weeks after the mass murder, at least one additional counselor or psychologist was at each school.
School-bus drivers — the first contact for many returning students — were also trained to deal with questions and behaviors related to the tragedy.
Francis Pombar, formerly chief of attendance at the School District of Philadelphia and a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, was brought on board in October to serve as the APS recovery coordinator and leader of its Crisis Management Team for at least one school year. He's being paid out of school emergency funds.
Next month, Schonfeld and another center staff member will return to meet with Aurora school administrators.
People in Aurora, even if indirectly affected by the shooting, can be left feeling very unsettled and vulnerable, Schonfeld said. "They experienced the loss of their assumptive world," he said.
Events such as mass shootings bring people's other anxieties and fears to the surface, he said. For example, a student worried about his mother's cancer will have that anxiety heightened by disturbing external events.
On the first day back to school in Aurora, staff led discussions about the shooting using "age-appropriate scripts" developed with Schonfeld and Dr. Dan Nelson.
Parents could opt children out of participation in discussions, but Barry stressed the event was too important to ignore — and it would be talked about in the halls and on the playground.
After teachers welcomed students back to school and talked about classes, they were asked to bring up the shooting. A sample script for grades K-5 went like this:
"Before we go further, I'd like to take a moment to discuss what happened at the local movie theater a few weeks ago. This tragedy may make the start of this school year challenging for some of us."
Teachers were told to share a few facts about the shooting with a level of detail they thought appropriate.
Teachers were asked to acknowledge that students might feel more sad, scared or confused after the violence. They were told to talk about how it makes them feel, to let students know they could talk to them and to reassure them their school is safe.
Each individual takes a different path to recovery — and each is on their own schedule, Barry said.
The 7/20 Recovery Committee, a cross-section of community leaders trying to address long-term impacts of the shooting, report that studies of similar violent events have shown that 28 percent of mass-shooting survivors will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Center for PTSD reports that up to 43 percent of those who experience the disorder will struggle with substance abuse.
"Some people are OK pretty fast," Barry said. "It hits some later. Others are up and down. There are some people who never get over it."
Gateway's Hedges said he thinks his school is moving forward.
"It's an ongoing thing, but we're doing pretty well," he said. "It pulled us together. It brought out the best in us."
Electa Draper: 303-954-1276, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/electadraper