RECOVERY A LONG AND WINDING ROAD
Parkland, Sandy Hook provide map in wake of tragedy
How does a community recover after a tragedy like the mass shooting at Oxford High School and the residual threats that have rippled across Michigan in its wake?
That's the question faced by Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, who has had to provide his leadership, guidance, empathy and presence throughout the unthinkable days that have befallen the small community in his county, since Nov. 30.
Thankfully, a friend thought to introduce him to Christine Hunschofsky.
She is currently a member of Florida's House of Representatives but on Feb. 14, 2018, Hunschofsky was the Mayor of Parkland, Florida, and like Coulter faced the same question after a 19-year-old opened fire on students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. The killing spree marked the deadliest high school shooting in American history, surpassing the Columbine High School massacre that killed 13 plus the perpetrators in Colorado in 1999.
Two days after the shooting Coulter called Hunschofsky, who wasn't surprised to hear from him.
Since the tragedy in Florida, she has received a least five or six calls from other community leaders who have dealt mass school shootings.
“My initial reaction is always that, I'm incredibly sad,” she said. “I feel awful that a community is going through this again. And then obviously, I want to do whatever I can, share, whatever experience, or knowledge, or things that I've learned in order to help them.”
Coulter said that when he called, the incident was still very raw and the shock was still fresh.
One of her initial pieces of advice to him was to have a support system in place immediately because those feelings won't last long.
“She said, ‘Emotions go from shock to a short of trauma and even anger rather quickly,'” Coulter said.
People will be mad and upset. They will come together but then there will be a division.
At this point what's important is to have a place where people can go for help and any mental health support they might need.
“Not just the students, you know, and their parents, but the community at large,” Coulter said. “Her experience helped me understand the critical importance, and urgency of that.”
As a result, help for everyone in the community was readily available and encouraged, and to be sure everyone was covered, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners approved additional resources for mental health programs, for schools and the community.
This past week, Common Ground, a nonprofit in Oakland County that provides mental health crisis services also received $100,000 in state funding to help the grieving community.
The aid for Common Ground was included in an $841 million supplemental spending bill that won legislative approval Tuesday
night and will be signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who visited Oxford on several occasions.
Common Ground offers 24-hour services to more than 80,000 people each year, and offers immediate counseling through its Disaster Distress Helpline at 800985-5990.
Counselors and professionals were also made available at centers in other communities impacted by the shooting such as Southfield, where a gun was found in one of its schools.
“We did it in Pontiac as well, in part because they have a large percentage of students who go to Oxford High School and we're going to continue those, as long as the communities find value in them,” Coulter said.
The importance of providing mental health support was not something Hunschofsky learned but the advice she was given.
“I got a call around 4:30 in the morning the day after the shooting,” Hunschofsky said.
It was Nicole Hockley whose son Dylan, 6, was one of 26 people killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012. Hockley warned Hunschofsky that in the beginning everybody will come together. Then a tsunami would hit and the community would become divided for a variety of reasons and that she needed to have support mechanisms in place to help the community.
She passed this on to Coulter as well as how to access federal resources and grants to cover the resources he would need.
Another commonality among the school shootings is the rash of threats.
“I was told to prepare for that reaction and we were, but it's been much greater than expected,” Coulter said.
Despite the fact that any type of threat involving a Michigan school could result in a felony charge punishable by up to 20 years in prison, police across southeast Michigan have responded to dozens of threats since the mass shooting at Oxford High School.
Authorities have charged 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley with several felonies for the shooting, which killed four people and injured nearly a dozen others. Crumbley's parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, also face four counts each of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of the four students — accused of being irresponsible gun owners and allowing their son access to a 9mm handgun believed to have been used in the shooting.
Coulter said the threats are really starting to wear on first responders.
A spokesperson for the Macomb County Sheriff's Office said deputies responded to at least 28 calls regarding school threats, and that was in just one day.
They came in Clintondale Community Schools in Clinton Township, Delasalle Collegiate High School in Warren, Fraser Public Schools, Utica Community Schools and Warren Consolidated Schools, among others.
This past Monday, West Bloomfield High School, West Bloomfield Middle School and the Transition Center went into lockdown after threats on social media surfaced on platforms like Instagram.
“I asked Christine if this was her experience and she said, ‘Absolutely,'” Coulter said. “It went on for months and three years later — while not at the same level — it's still going on.”
One of the things Hunschofsky shared with Coulter was that she herself sought help.
“She said a couple of months after the tragedy she personally started experiencing some of the effects of the trauma that she had been through,” Coulter said.
The initial shock and response followed by funerals, talking to family members who were grieving or survivors still trying to cope with what happened took its toll and she was very public about her need to talk to a counselor.
“She wanted to show that it could happen to anybody and that it's import to get help,” Coulter said. “I thought it very wise and brave of her to be so public about something that is sometimes stigmatized.”
But not everyone wants to talk.
Some people will find comfort in other ways like the Sandy Hook families who created the Mysandyhookfamily.org website in the midst of their grief. As members explained on their website: “We have come to realize that we want our loved ones to be remembered for the lives they lived and how they touched our hearts. We have been uplifted by the support of so many people and we would like to keep that spirit of unity and love alive in all we do to remember those we so dearly miss.
“This website is intended to serve as a singular place of sharing, communication, and contact with the families of those who lost their lives that day. Mysandyhookfamily.org allows us, the 26 families, and the opportunity to honor our loved ones in a way that feels right to each individual family.
“We ask that you understand that each of us — each family — is unique in our own experiences following this tragedy and we each have our own voice and perspective. By creating this website, we hope to offer an opportunity to communicate with our families and honor our loved ones, while at the same time respecting each family's individual journey and unique experiences.”
One of the children honored by the site is Dylan, for whom Hockley honored by starting the nonprofit Dylan's Wings of Change, inspired by his parent's eulogy at his celebration of life. The first mission of the foundation was to support children with autism and related conditions, making grants to support small organizations that could not easily raise money.
In the summer, it partners with another organization to offer a camp for people with disabilities. She also started the Sandy Hook Promise, which works to end school shootings and create a culture change that prevents violence and other harmful acts that hurt children through. One of her roles as its founder has been public speaking engagements and making more people aware of the warning signs before an act of violence.
In Hunschofsky's community, residents worked on memorial projects honoring the people who were killed.
“We lost 17 so we had 17 service projects,” she said.
One of the ones she remembers had people collecting books for a library that was created at a local center in honor of a young girl who loved books.
“It was beautiful because she was a reader,” Hunschofsky said.
In the future, service projects may help members of the community in Oxford who wish to honor the memory of the four students killed, Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana and Justin Schilling or even others who were injured or impacted in other ways.
One thing Coulter knows for sure is it will take time for the community to heal.
“The community is going to need a lot of help for a long time because a tragedy of this magnitude does not heal quickly,” said Coulter, who has endured a very emotional and stressful week. “I've made the visits to the funeral homes and talked to the parents and first responders. I'm doing OK, but (thanks to Hunschofsky's advice) alert to the signs that could happen later.”
For now he's focused on solving problems and doing what needs to be done for Oxford's families and community, which will be forever changed because of Nov. 30, 2021.
“There isn't a day that doesn't go by when I wish I could go back to Feb. 13, 2018,” Hunschofsky said, referring to the day before the shooting.
What helped her is the spirit of her community and the communities that surround Parkland, just as Oxford will be helped by its community and others in Oakland, Macomb and throughout Michigan.
On the anniversary of the shooting Hunschofsky returned to Parkland with a message.
“While we are still healing, while a lot of this is still raw, to see the human spirit that we have here in Parkland, I think that's the message. We might have been shaken but we refuse to be down for the count,” she said.