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Loss, grief and crisis: Meet the man who offers solace in the face of tragedy

David Schonfeld created the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which became part of USC in 2015

candlelight vigil
A candlelight prayer gathering mourns the lives lost in the 2012 shootings in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

On July 20, 2012, a single event forever changed the peaceful city of Aurora, Colo., where a lone gunman entered a movie theater and opened fire on the audience, leaving 12 people dead and 70 wounded.

The next day David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB), received a call.

“The superintendent for the district asked me if I ever come out to schools in person,” Schonfeld said. “I told him I did, and he said, ‘Can you come today?’”

Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and professor of practice, social work and pediatrics at USC, has provided consultation and training on loss and grief for 30 years. Recognized as one of the world’s top experts on the subject, he established the NCSCB in 2005, which became part of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in 2015.

The shooting in Aurora is an example of how a community crisis can also be a school crisis. Among those in the Century 16 complex that night, 150 were current students, staff members and recent graduates of the local high school.

“Everyone ran out of the building and was standing around in a parking lot in the middle of the night, worried about their safety,” said Schonfeld, who has a joint appointment at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “So they opened up the nearby high school and transported everyone there. All of the initial response was done at the school — death notification, counseling, support. It was treated like a school shooting because there were students who had died and students who had lost friends, and the school needed guidance on how to handle this.”

Disaster response 

Mass shootings, terrorist attacks, war and natural disasters have become an unfortunate recurrence in modern society around the world. At times, barely a week will pass without news of a community torn apart by forces outside their control. While those who are unexpectedly taken from their families and friends are publicly mourned, what is often overlooked is the frightening and inconsolable reality that lies ahead for the survivors.

When people are initially in crisis, if you’re empathetic, articulate and knowledgeable, people are grateful because you’re there to help. But the really hard work follows.

David Schonfeld

“When people are initially in crisis, if you’re empathetic, articulate and knowledgeable, people are grateful because you’re there to help,” Schonfeld said. “But the really hard work follows. It’s when people are ready to talk — when they have to deal with the longer-term issues and make complicated decisions.”

The NCSCB has responded to disaster and crisis events in school and community settings where children and young adults are involved on a national and global level. Despite providing consultation for many of the high-profile crises over the last decade, including the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and the tornado that leveled Joplin, Mo., the work of the NCSCB remains largely unknown to the public. This is because when the NCSCB responds to a crisis, it generally does its work behind the scenes, often in highly emotional atmospheres with individuals who are desperately seeking answers.

Consultations could range anywhere from a one-hour phone call with a school administrator or mental health provider to spending a week working with teachers and other school professionals, parents and community members on how to support students who have experienced crisis or loss.

“Our goal is to proactively empower school communities to be able to respond and sustain support for their students themselves,” Schonfeld said. “We don’t promote ourselves or the center. For instance, when I responded to the shooting in Aurora, I was asked to speak at the press conference, and I declined because it was better that I help prepare the superintendent to answer the questions, allowing the community to know that the school is able to respond and sustain the response.”

Staying power

The NCSCB is unique in that it will also stay in touch with schools and communities it has helped through a crisis for several years after the initial event. Much of the follow-up work involves helping schools more optimally structure their mental health services and preventive efforts to meet longer-term recovery needs. The center may be asked to assist with how to acknowledge the first anniversary of an event or work with the school and broader community to plan a formal memorial.

It also produces free materials on how to provide support to children following a crisis or loss.

“We developed materials on how to talk to kids about the nightclub shooting in Orlando,” Schonfeld said. “I sent it to the American Academy of Pediatrics and they sent it to the Florida chapter, which sent it out to all pediatricians in Florida for distribution to parents.”

When the recent shootings of police happened in Dallas, the NCSCB shared materials it had developed with Concerns on Police Survivors (COPS) to address how schools can support children who have experienced the line-of-duty death of a family member or friend.

Key players 

Operating with a professional advisory board of eight members located throughout the United States, half of the center’s members have clinical training in social work, psychology and psychiatry, and they respond to crisis events with Schonfeld.

One member of the advisory board who has worked with Schonfeld since the attacks on September 11, 2001 is Marleen Wong, clinical professor and senior associate dean of field education. An internationally respected expert on mental health and trauma, Wong has responded to crisis events with Schonfeld both as a colleague within the NCSCB and also as a representative of other organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Education.

“The NCSCB doesn’t go into a crisis situation with a program or plan that they impose on the school or district experiencing a traumatic event,” Wong said. “We listen to what the school and district faculty and administrators have experienced, assess their efforts and the needs of the students, faculty and parents, and then propose what the next steps might be. We start where our client needs begin and that is the social work approach to promoting resiliency in children and families after crisis and loss.”

Wong traveled with Schonfeld to Chengdu, China, to help survivors of the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 and to assist students after the 2006 shooting at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo. She was also a key player in bringing the NCSCB to USC, where she hopes it will finally be able to develop the resources and support it needs to expand.

“I look forward to working with David to infuse his expertise into the school’s curriculum and field placements of our students,” she said. “Developing specific skills for crisis intervention is so important during this time of climate change and local, national and international conflict.”

Continuing need

For children and young adults, a loss can have a lifetime effect on their development if they are not provided with the tools they need to understand their complex emotions. By the time children complete high school, almost all will have experienced the death of a family member or friend, and by age 16, one in 20 will have experienced the death of a parent.

“The center needs to grow to the point where it can be a larger resource for the country, where people know about it,” Schonfeld said. “I’m hoping to start by bringing more faculty on board to do the work of the NCSCB and contribute to the training of social workers and other disciplines in crisis and bereavement. This school is particularly well-suited to doing that because it’s incredibly interdisciplinary. As someone who is not a social worker, my presence here already suggests that.”

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Loss, grief and crisis: Meet the man who offers solace in the face of tragedy

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