Battery Park City resident Marijo Russell-O’Grady has co-authored a new book that is timely and topical, albeit in a troubling way. With her colleague, Katie Treadwell, Dr. Russell-O’Grady (who holds a PhD in higher education administration) has written, “Crisis, Compassion, and Resiliency in Student Affairs: Using Triage Practices to Foster Well-Being,” a research-driven analysis of the experiences of professional educators who have lived through (and helped manage the response to) tragedies such as active shooters, major terrorist attacks, natural disasters, mass-casualty events, and student deaths.
Since 1998, Dr. Russell-O’Grady has served as an associate vice president and Dean for Students at Pace University’s campus in Lower Manhattan. So she was still relatively new to her job on a bright morning 18 years ago, when, as she recalled in a Pace oral history interview, “first I heard the noise, and I looked out and there’s a plane. I saw it pass Woolworth. I saw and felt the buildings shake upon impact. I see all these people running all over the streets. I remember going downstairs and seeing a former student, and he was crying. And he was kind of a tough guy.”
“And I looked, and the building’s on fire, and you’re seeing people out on the window ledges and you’re seeing people running for their lives,” she continued. “So I said to everyone in the front, get to the other building. Get back and go to the other building. And I said we should close this building. I said to everyone, get into cover, get out of here. I said get everybody on these floors out.”
“And so I went out and I went to the other building and told people to get inside, get inside, go into One Pace Plaza,” Dr. Russell-O’Grady recalled. “Don’t stay out here. Cause there’s just so many people running, chaos. And then I went to security, and the minute I got to security, people were in panic and were asking for masks, and people were calling, are we still having classes? And the phones were going off the hook, and people wanted masks and I’m like, listen. Buildings and grounds had already turned off the exhaust so we weren’t bringing in the bad stuff.”
“We were giving out water and masks,” she remembered. “Then we got people into the Schimmel auditorium, into the gym, into the cafeteria, and I remember large crowds, trying to get people into the lower floors. In the gym there was a rumor started that there was a gas leak in there, so people started to shove like the start of a panic, of a trample, and we said no. Get the air horns out. There is no gas here. We don’t have gas. We’re okay. And then staff started coming and they would give out free food. You know, counseling was dishing ice cream and food and just getting people food.”
Dr. Russell-O’Grady described the process she helped oversee at Pace that day, and in the weeks that followed, as “triage — doing what matters most in the moment during a crisis event.” This skill is sadly not specific to September 11, 2001. Ever since the 1999 school shooting massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, violence at educational institutions has been a recurring theme in American life, with crises on campuses and at schools an increasingly common event. In such circumstances, educators and administrators are called upon to serve as the ‘first’ first responders.
Dr. Russell-O’Grady says of her book, “there are many lessons that can be applied to other fields. It is about being able to see and manage the ‘forest and the trees’ in times of crisis. As Clark Kerr said ‘a university reveals its soul during a crisis,’ and I believe this to be true. The care of that soul, and those impacted by a crisis, need attention as we bring a campus or a business back in operation. We live in turbulent times, and higher education professionals are poised to confront and manage these situations. The book reinforces, through storytelling about campus incidents, the need for care, to work with others, and to bring the community affected back from the ashes.”
Dr. Russell-O’Grady moved downtown in 1998, where she was able to observe the community’s response to local disasters such as 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy. In the two decades she has been at Pace, she notes that the job has evolved. “I have a lot more training in sort of emergency stuff, which I had before but now it’s more specific to these kinds of things. But I would say that my number one concern always is to care for the students — are they okay? And two, are we safe? So I think it has intensified.”
When not acting as an advocate for student at Pace, Dr. Russell-O’Grady has served on the Downtown Little League’s board of directors for ten years. After rotating through stints as secretary, Opening Day coordinator and safety officer, she currently helps out with the Challenger League, which offers baseball for individuals with disabilities.
“Crisis, Compassion, and Resiliency in Student Affairs” is available via Amazon and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.