D.C. principal's killing leaves behind a field of mangled little souls

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, April 23, 2010; B01

With every loss, the shell of a traumatized child grows harder.

That's the ripple effect we're going to see at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson.

Beyond the hellishness of the crime and the tragedy of any killing, last week's fatal shooting of the D.C. school's principal, Brian Betts, will leave behind a field of mangled little souls.

It might not have been so bad for them if Brian Betts weren't so good.

If he were just another adult who came into these kids' lives, went through the motions, proclaimed that test scores would be going up and sat in an office issuing orders and shuffling papers, it might not be so hard on the kids right now.

But he was a force. This was a guy who got them. He got in their faces, crawled into their lives. He got on the phone with them, called their parents and their grandmas. He knew their names, their problems and their triumphs.

"He spoke their language," said Kevin Bey, a father of three of Betts's students. "He saw them and said: 'Hey, what's up, Cuz?' or instead of scolding them, he'd ask them: 'You wanna chill out right now?'

"Half the time, I don't understand what my own kids are saying, but Mr. Betts, he spoke their language," Bey said.

In a school that reports zero white students in a predominantly black neighborhood, Betts was the white guy who ended up being called "a father" by hundreds.

The notes all over the memorial boards outside the school declare this. The kids who step in front of TV cameras, awkward, looking down, fiddling with their coats, repeated the phrase: "He was like a father to me."

"To every ethnicity, every race, he was the father there," said Bey, who loved the effect Betts had on his own kids so much that he asked the principal to be godfather to his children.

In three years of doing pickups and drop-offs at the school, Bey said he has seen only two other dads at the school.

And that makes the killing of Betts far more personal than you would imagine.

"Something you gotta understand about this school: There are lots of kids who don't have fathers in their lives, fathers who are always there," Bey said.

"For a lot of kids, Mr. Betts was it. And whoever did this really killed the father of a lot of little kids."

That father figure was shot in his Silver Spring home sometime after 11:30 p.m. April 14. He didn't show up at school the next day, so staff members went to look for him but found his body instead. His car was found in Southeast Washington over the weekend, 14 miles from his home. Police haven't made an arrest, and the school community is stunned.

And that brings us to an awful chain that social workers and child psychologists dread.

The cycle of anger, grief and loss is exponentially more devastating for kids who have experienced such pain before, whether it's a death, divorce or just a lot of instability in the home.

It's like the economy and the recession: Those with the smallest bank accounts fall off the cliff first when the economy sours.

The kids with the smallest reserves of trust, affection and solid adult relationships will have the hardest time facing this loss, trusting again, putting all their emotional capital in another adult.

Add to that their age -- wasn't middle school awful for everybody? -- and there is a lot of damage done.

If you've ever tried to work with kids as a school volunteer or through a mentoring program, you know their shells are hard. That's what teenagers do. They cross their arms, look at the floor, shut down. So many grown-ups are in and out of their lives. "Why should I listen to you? You're just going to go away too," they glower.

The grief counselors who swooped down to the middle school this week saw it right away. A fight broke out Monday among some kids who were especially close to Betts and who could muster little else besides anger and rage as a way to lash out, one counselor told me.

There's even a body of research in the field of child psychology that suggests that the loss of a short-term mentor will powerfully undermine the spirit of any child who has had a hard time bonding with an adult, perhaps making them even angrier than they were before they met this one caring person.

It is the most crucial time for any adult to hang on and hold tight to the kids who knew Betts.

Because whoever killed Betts, one parent told me, "killed about a thousand other souls."

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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