(May 28, 2014 / JNS) April’s fatal shooting at Village Shalom in Overland Park, Kan., has had a palpable effect on the entire senior living community, according to its president and CEO, Matt Lewis. But months after the murder of Terri LaManno in the center’s parking lot, the staff has moved from crisis mode to reflection.
According to Paul Goldenberg—national director of the Secure Community Network (SCN), the homeland security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—on the day of the shooting, Village Shalom “did everything humanly possible they could do… an outstanding job.”
While luck and good wits were certainly factors that day, they had little to do with the retirement community’s successful management of the incident. It was proper training and preparedness that kept Village Shalom residents and staffers safe and calm.
Village Shalom has been serving senior adults for 102 years and never before, said Lewis, had the center experienced “anything as violent or hateful as the events of April 13.
“That is not to say that we weren’t prepared to handle it—we were,” he said.
Emergency preparedness is woven into who and what Village Shalom is as a healthcare facility. On an ongoing basis, staffers train for all kind of emergencies, including fires, tornadoes, bombs, utility outages, evacuations, and active shooters. Training starts for staff members on their first day of employment and continues throughout the year—every year.
“We conduct extensive emergency preparedness training in a variety of methods, including staff in-services, computer modules, and to-the-job training that is specific to the area in which a team member works,” Lewis explained.
That training proved vital on April 13, said Eileen Miller, director of resident services. She was the manager on duty that day, and said the training helped her handle the situation with a cool head. She was aware that Village Shalom—like any other Jewish facility—could be the target of a hate crime.
“You just never think it’s going to happen where you are,” Miller said.
When police told Miller there was a shooting in the parking lot and to put the building on lockdown, her reactions were instantaneous. She was also able to quickly assess the skill sets of the other employees on duty, and utilize them to the best of their capabilities and in a way that maintained the highest level of calm and effectiveness for everyone.
Village Shalom remained on lockdown for several hours, for the entire time maintaining “communication among staff, residents, and family members,” according to Lewis. The whole management team was onsite within a short time of the lockdown being lifted, and most remained until well after midnight.
In the weeks following the tragedy, the story shifted from one of crisis to one of grief management and an opportunity to teach other senior facilities how they can be better prepared to help their residents in times of trauma.
While Goldenberg said he believes this is the first time a hate crime of this nature has taken place in any senior center in recent decades, and certainly in the U.S., research shows that shootings at senior facilities are generally not as uncommon as one might think. The majority of incidents, however, tend to be either domestic in nature or as a means of euthanasia.
Senior facilities have unique and inherent vulnerabilities, as most residents have physical limitations, sight or auditory deficits, mobility challenges, or cognitive concerns. For all of these reasons, said Lewis, it is essential that the centers have robust emergency preparedness protocols in place.
Moreover, there is a unique social service aspect that comes with geriatric patients. Lewis said annual surveys routinely indicate that safety and security are the top priority of his residents, likely because of their reduced independence. Holocaust survivors, meanwhile, were among Village Shalom’s top priorities after the shooting given the motive of Frazier Glenn Miller, the neo-Nazi perpetrator.
Paula Carpenter, Village Shalom’s director of social services, took an active role immediately after the shooting. Jewish Family Services and other area hospice organizations offered counseling for residents and staff, which Carpenter accepted and offered her community. Residents, staffers, and families were offered one-on-one and group counseling in a variety of formats, and safe platforms for residents and staffers to vent their feelings were constructed.
“Because we have a wide range of resident health situations across our campus, social service support is an important part of their care—and it is personalized to each individual,” said Carpenter.
Area rabbis, she noted, also flooded the building after the tragedy, which offered another layer of counseling and support.
One of the unique challenges Carpenter and Lewis said they are faced with is that unlike the similar shooting that occurred the same day at the local Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Village Shalom is a residential facility and people consider it their home.
“It is no different than if it happened in your front yard or mine,” said Lewis, noting that LaManno’s mother remains a resident there, which adds another layer to the emotions involved.
Carpenter reported that residents resumed normal life quickly, but that they have expressed some concern for the safety of visiting staffers and family members.
Since April 13, Lewis and SCN’s Goldenberg have been asked to share their experiences and advice with other Jewish senior communities through the Association of Jewish Aging Services and other platforms. Goldenberg said the key is training and re-training, and pointed people to scnus.org, where several resources are available.
Goldenberg also noted that in this era, security personnel are no longer the first level of defense. Instead, employees are first responders. He said security training might become a mandatory part of the hiring process for Jewish communal professional executives in the not-too-distant future.
The SCN director said he was impressed with how quickly the Kansas City area’s Jewish community recovered, not allowing the act of one hater to disrupt their way of life.
“We have what to learn from Kansas City,” Goldenberg said.
Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MaayanJaffe.