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October 1, 1997

Preparing for a Crisis

A Critical Incident Response Team helps Albuquerque's large school district meet crises expeditiously and with compassion.
Last March, five people were found dead in Albuquerque, New Mexico's Hollywood Video store, victims of an armed robbery. The mass slaying, which occurred around midnight, was the worst in our city's history. The victims were three employees—ages 18, 19, and 30—and one employee's grandparents. Police suspected the grandparents were abducted as they waited to pick up their grandson after work.
The 18-year-old girl attended Highland High School, a few blocks away from the video store. Many of this popular senior's classmates and teachers were shocked and grief-stricken. "I was just talking to her Friday. I've known her since the 9th grade. I still can't believe she's dead," a student said. "It's kind of shocking when someone you went to high school with for four years is murdered. Something like this makes you think the future isn't very promising."

Orchestrating Appropriate Responses

Fortunately, the Albuquerque school district staff was not caught totally off guard. The following morning, Highland's principal contacted us—the district's director of the Employee Assistance Program and coordinator of guidance and counseling—and we, in turn, dispatched counselors and grief counseling teams to the high school. We remained there for the next several days.
Counselors began assisting distraught friends, teachers, and family members in many ways. Some met with groups of students or teachers; others met privately with individuals. The principal herself was greatly distressed, and one of us went for a long walk with her around the school grounds.
Counselors also went to the victim's various classes. They helped classmates and teachers talk about their feelings and eventually moved their energies in a more positive direction, asking, for example, if they would like to write something or organize a memorial. In fact, the students wanted to do both. In the hallway, they hung a long strip of butcher paper on which they wrote sentiments that they later shared at the memorial service. Staff and students also observed a moment of silence in the young woman's memory.

Coordinating Plans and People

Two years earlier, we had begun forming a District Critical Incident Response Team to take the lead in planning and coordinating services for a variety of possible crises. Before then, we had developed an informal crisis intervention process that involved notifying an employee assistance counselor, who worked with the staff, and school counselors who worked with students. Although this approach was reasonably effective, we had to form a new intervention team every time a crisis arose—a formidable task in our district of more than 120 schools.
  • ensure maximum safety and the emotional well-being of the people involved;
  • develop a districtwide crisis response management plan;
  • coordinate the training needed to implement the plan; and
  • collaborate with community agencies on communication systems, equipment, and emergency supplies.
The team includes representatives of a host of school district departments—security, employee assistance, transportation, counseling, nursing, maintenance and operations, cafeteria services, public relations, administration, human resources, and risk management. If a chemical spill occurs next to a school, for example, the transportation department buses students to a safer location. If we have a blizzard, cafeteria workers prepare food for those students who must stay on campus overnight. If a student dies, professional counselors offer psychological support to the teachers and students affected.
Members of a response team will vary with the size and resources of the school district. In some districts, community agencies may be involved.
As Craig Beck (1995, p.22) stresses in discussing a middle school shooting, a comprehensive crisis management plan should be "at the top of any school district's agenda." In 1994, with the support of our superintendent, our Critical Incident Response Team developed such a plan.
Team members began by spelling out who would be responsible for specific steps, including identifying and containing the problem and activating the communication system to keep all parties informed of developments. In the event of a major district crisis other than a death at a school, our district's director of security is our first point of contact—the person who calls all appropriate team members. The employee assistance program director is responsible for activating on-site counseling and debriefing services.
Thus we have established what Gerald Lewis (1994) refers to as "a simple, understandable chain of command"—a necessity in streamlining the process for principals and administrators.

Fine-Tuning Crisis Counseling

To assist our school counseling staff, we formed school crisis counseling teams, which include district counselors, social workers, and psychologists who volunteer their time. In addition to the mental health personnel, other staff members may be recruited, including teachers, educational assistants, and nurses, as well as secretaries and community people—provided they meet our criteria. We know from past experience that these people can be valuable resources in a crisis. Among the criteria they must meet: being committed to training in crisis intervention and grief recovery; being willing to give time beyond the school day when necessary; and being approved by an immediate supervisor or principal for release time in the event of a crisis.
Although counseling teams are assigned primarily to geographic areas whose schools and populations they know best, they may be sent to any district school that has experienced a student or staff death, suicide, or other trauma. When possible, team members are representative of their school community. (In Albuquerque, Spanish-speaking counselors are a key part of every team.)
To promote cohesion and a sense of unity, we schedule time for each team to meet on its own and, in fact, encourage members to do so. Team members immediately address housekeeping and organizational details, devising strategies for delivering counseling services and for phoning one another. Each team designates two co-leaders with mental health experience—a precaution in the event that one leader is absent on the day of a crisis. As we all know only too well, deaths, murders, or suicides do not wait for a convenient time. Crisis teams are often called on to provide services before they have completed their training.

Training In-House and Out

Because the Critical Incident Response Team is such a diverse group, unified training is essential. We found that local fire and police departments already conducted much of the necessary training. At our request, they conduct a modified version of their training for our school personnel.
Taking advantage of the city's training was the first step in coordinating city departments with our school district team. The training gives team members a common language to use when working with city officials, as well as an understanding of crisis containment and recovery procedures. We also gained an understanding of the far-reaching ramifications of a crisis in a metropolitan area and the need for schools to be prepared to work jointly with city departments.
Training includes simulations of actual crisis situations. For example, we played out one scenario in which a disturbed person took a classroom of students hostage. Following this true-to-life, intensive training, we were emotionally exhausted.
We also give members of our crisis counseling teams an opportunity to update and expand their skills in dealing with death, grief, and recovery. We conduct counseling training for all district mental health professionals, often using talented team members as workshop presenters (our first presenter was an expert in death education). Early in the training, we hold simulation scenarios to give team members an opportunity to discuss or role-play their responses to a crisis.
Finally, we distribute a packet of handouts to teachers and other staff members. These booklets include tips on how to talk with students about death and the grief process and suggest classroom activities to help students through a grieving period.

Assessing the Services

In the aftermath of each crisis, we critique the responses of the district and school counseling team. A good assessment system has several benefits: It helps ensure that responses are expeditious and compassionate; it provides valuable feedback on training and ways to update it; it shows how the crisis management plan and process might be refined or redirected; and it can be used to justify budget allocations. Obviously, a major part of this assessment involves evaluating the effect of the services on crisis victims.
Do efforts like our district's make a difference during a crisis and its aftermath? In examining post-traumatic stress, Frank Parkinson (1993) cites studies showing that debriefing techniques for people in a crisis situation do indeed lessen "the possibility of deeper problems emerging at a later stage." Our own experience in addressing the needs of students and staff who have experienced trauma bear out those findings. Whether you are operating in a school or districtwide context, remember: Prevention is important, but emergency preparedness is essential.

Beck, C. (Fall 1995). "Central Middle School Shooting: Lessons Learned." School Safety, pp. 22-24. (Available from National School Safety Center, 4165 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Ste. 290, Westlake Village, CA 91362; phone: (805) 373-9977; fax: (805) 373-9277.

Lewis, G.W. (1994). Critical Incident Stress. Muncie, Ind.: Accelerated Development, Inc.

Parkinson, F. (1993). Post-Trauma Stress. Tucson, Ariz.: Fisher Books.

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