Standing in front of classes this week to help them make sense of the frightening news from Ukraine brought back chilling memories. Nearly five years ago, just before lunchtime on the day after the Manchester Arena attack, we learned that a little girl missing from our school had been named as the bombing’s youngest victim. Saffie-Rose Roussos was only eight.
I’d sat through counter-terrorism training, but its focus is in the name: Prevent. We are none of us prepared for what to do when an atrocity actually occurs. The initial impact on the children was devastating. They struggled to comprehend that their friend had died, let alone that she had been killed in such a cruel manner. Their grief was compounded by the press, camped outside the school gates, waiting to pounce on anyone who entered or left.
As headteacher, professionals advised me that we needed to let our children grieve. This was part of the ‘normal’ process they needed and by providing support too soon, we could affect how they processed grief later in life. It meant we needed to comfort and love our grieving children while waiting for the professional support many of them needed.
So our support for our children started with simply recognising they were terrified. As adults we are accustomed to viewing the victims of terror as ‘chosen at random’. But for children, it is a personal attack. In the eyes of my pupils, their friend had been killed; what was stopping it happening to them? The context of 2017 meant these anxieties had a grounding in reality, and that made it all the more challenging to reassure them.
Some were eventually diagnosed with PTSD. But they all suffered. One little boy took down a picture of Saffie and scribbled over it. His rationale was that if he hid her picture, it would make it all go away. We needed to understand how each child was expressing their fear and grief.
In the weeks that followed, the school received many kind offers, including a surprise visit from David Walliams. Watching their faces then, I was reminded that we needed to focus on moments of joy. Although Saffie had died, she had lived, and been beautiful, captivating and kind. This mindset shift was so important moving forward.
We tiered our support to whole-school, small groups and individuals. It included counselling, performing and a festival project that enabled us to take Saffie’s closest friends to Manchester to build new positive associations with the city itself. But we continued to experience groups of children who were too grief-stricken to learn. We met their needs on a day-by-day basis using professional support we had sourced through our kind and patient staff, and working alongside parents.
Recovery has taken all this time and hasn’t been easy or linear. The details recently released through the Manchester Arena Inquiry – namely, that the attack could and should have been prevented or minimised – have caused further anguish. Managing this during the pandemic has been tough as we were not always able to be together. But the model of supervision we developed early on ̶ which allows staff to share their issues and find support to overcome them ̶ has seen us through, and we use it to this day.
We have done well and we have done right by our community. We took something wholly, unimaginably awful and ensured our community could cling to the positives of their experiences with us to help our children regain their childhoods.
But aside from anonymous donations that allowed us to lead a trauma-informed recovery programme, we were almost left alone to find our way through. How immeasurably better it would be if a collective response existed for such incidents, if a crisis-management team was deployed to work alongside the community and school. What if Prevent training went some way to preventing anyone from going into the aftermath of such situations unprepared?
I know how I feel when I see the news from Ukraine in that light. I can just imagine how our former pupils feel, too. Please don’t underestimate the collective effect on your communities. For so many, it’s not some distant ‘history in the making’, but a frightening personal attack.
Chris Upton is the author of Searching For The Sparkle: A School’s Journey Of Recovery.