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CA Curious

Supporting Our Students in Times of Crisis

October 26, 2023

On Tuesday, we held our second lockdown drill of the school year.

It is a shame that we have to spend time worrying about gun violence at school, but the risk in this day and age is too significant to treat lightly. Interestingly, we only began practicing lockdowns monthly at the suggestion of our Upper School students, who felt that twice-yearly drills were insufficient for getting more comfortable finding suitable safe spaces at various times throughout the day.

As a learning community, we are always better when we listen and incorporate student feedback into our programs and practices.

With the horrific escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, we’ve found ourselves again leaning into our student-forward approach. In the spirit of transparency, I want to share with you some of the things we have been doing as a community to support our students during this harrowing time. At the end of this blog – in keeping with its CA Curious theme – I will also share some broader reflections we’ve been having about communications during times of crisis.

With every crisis—every instance of violence delivered straight to our cell phones courtesy of social media—we face myriad complex questions. As an institution, how do we empathize publicly and authentically without being perceived as performative or political? How do we validate without triggering? How do we both acknowledge violence but also cultivate the sense of safety that is conducive and necessary to learning?

We approach these complex and uncomfortable questions from two lenses: What actions do we take internally to support our students, and what, if any, external public response is appropriate? The latter is admittedly thorny, and I’ll unpack our thinking on that in a bit. The former, however, is always our guiding principle. It is perhaps illustrative to give some insight into how that response is currently operating.

Over the weekend of the initial terrorist attacks in Israel, our Director of Equity and Community Engagement contacted the faculty sponsor of our Upper School student Jewish affinity group (JAG) to discuss the best way to support our students. When school resumed, at the suggestion of JAG student and faculty leadership, we split our Jewish students and their allies into separate sessions during affinity group time to create a space where Jewish students could express their emotions and process together without the additional burden of explanation to their fellow students. Faculty facilitated a parallel meeting with allies that focused on understanding what was happening and how they could best support their friends. A counselor was present to offer support to both groups. The Middle School Jewish Affinity Group advisor also checked in with MS JAG members.

As the crisis escalated into Gaza, we consulted the student leaders of our Muslim and Arab-American affinity groups to help determine the best ways to support them and ensure they feel seen and heard. We suspect at an appropriate time and within the right context, there will be opportunities for education and learning about this incredibly complex topic. Throughout, our Student Support Services team has made themselves visible and available to any student in either division who needs to process with an adult.

Across these conversations with students, a universal truth: our students appreciate opportunities to support one another, to talk about issues in their history classes, and to parse with a trusted educator and their peers the non-stop, fractured information (and disinformation) that is now characteristic of a media landscape driven by a 24-hour news cycle, social media, and even AI. We hear from students who say the most effective way CA can support them during trying times is to validate their experiences and lend an empathetic ear. And, of course, there is immense value in students having the opportunity to escape all the noise and lose themselves in a project, lesson, or activity.

This brings us to a larger reflective moment involving public communication.

Externally, we naturally feel a pull to recognize an event or tragedy and its impacts publicly. We want to empathize, to express solidarity in our shared sorrow. It is a sad testament to our times that we too often feel called to do so. And we recognize the hard reality that many in our community are at a higher threat of violence purely because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexuality. Given the sheer volume of violence in the world, we find ourselves wrestling with the problematic and uncomfortable determination of when public recognition is of value or appropriate.

Due to the complexities of each, we have deliberately avoided public statements in many instances, including international crises, war, and terrorism. This decision doesn’t mean that issues or events don’t deserve a spotlight and/or condemnation. However, a “statement” from Cary Academy—which by necessity would have to be brief—might seem underinformed, reductive, premature, performative, or simply out of place. The potential for missteps—for unintentionally inflicting further harm—abounds.

Instead, as we have with the Israel-Hamas conflict and, before that, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we immediately wrap our collective arms around our students. Then, we lean into student-sponsored efforts to raise awareness or support and to give voice to complex issues. And, as educators, we ensure students have the tools, facts, and contexts they need to scrutinize events in a way that supports nuanced, critical thinking.

We have made way for one significant exception to this approach: mass school shootings. With their attendant publicity, fear, shock, anger, and grief, it feels like a bright line. They hit so very close to home and impact all our students and the work that we do as a school. It is important to note these messages of sympathy and support go directly from me to all parents, employees, and our Upper School students. We let Middle School parents choose the best way to communicate this difficult news to their children, but our counselors remain ready and able to help students of both divisions process.

Written down in this way, it may seem formulaic or easy. I wish that were so. While admittedly uncomfortable in their necessity, these basic guidelines provide our Leadership Team with a starting point to contend with the unfathomable. We talk a lot as a group. We lose sleep, wondering if we get it right. Have we always? Perhaps not. Frankly, it seems impossible to do so, but we have to try.

And while much keeps me awake at night, one thing helps to settle my mind: our students. The grace, empathy, care, and compassion they extend to each other—often across differences and amid staggering tragedy—is awe-inspiring. And it is why we can continue to lean into our student-forward approach to support their voices meaningfully.

Post-script:
In the same spirit of transparency, we wanted to share an update on our school safety and security, which we have historically hesitated to discuss publicly for fear it would trigger unnecessary anxiety or give ideas to those who might wish to do us harm. Neither of those assumptions holds up anymore, and we’ve just launched a section of our website dedicated to more transparency about school safety. (You can find it off the main “hamburger” menu on the top-right of the landing page or by clicking here. Please note that the tone and word choice mirrors the direct-conversation-with-students approach of the whole site – thus, the informality).

Written by Dr. Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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