Special Topic / School Crisis Response: Expecting the Unexpected - ASCD
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November 1, 1994

Special Topic / School Crisis Response: Expecting the Unexpected

A coordinated districtwide crisis response is no accident. It reflects prevention, intervention, and rehearsed reaction.

On a typical fall day at an inner-city high school, two students leave the building without permission and go joy riding. The driver loses control of the car; it overturns, killing the passenger instantly. The driver survives.

Word of the accident circulates at the school. The driver's sister becomes the object of anger and bitter remarks from classmates. Concerned about the growing unrest, the principal addresses the student body over the loud speaker, alluding to “an accident involving students” but providing no details. As anxiety increases among students and staff, the frantic principal reacts randomly to questions and requests for help.

A mental health worker from the school-based health clinic, who has training in school crisis intervention, implores the principal to formulate a plan. The principal pushes him aside, saying, “I can't—there's too much to do!” Distraught teachers are at a loss about how to handle the situation. Psychological support staff from the middle school are reassigned to the high school, but given no clear direction when they arrive.

The following day, the local paper prints a gruesome picture and detailed description of the accident scene. The school is described as “out of control” by a cafeteria worker who was interviewed on school grounds during the height of the commotion.

* * *

Gunshots interrupt a school bus ride home from morning kindergarten. A window shatters, and a kindergartener is struck by a bullet. The bus driver speeds to the nearby middle school to call for assistance, and an ambulance soon arrives. Local police appear and, after consulting with the principal, usher the other bus riders into the middle school. Mental health personnel there encourage the kindergartners to talk about the incident and to express their feelings in pictures. When parents arrive, the psychologists discuss their children's reactions, explain symptoms of psychological trauma, and suggest ways to provide support.

As reports of the incident circulate through the community, reporters and television cameras descend upon the elementary school. A police officer stationed outside the main entrance carefully screens visitors and denies access to any media personnel. The principal issues a memo to inform teachers about the incident, notify them of special dismissal procedures, and announce an emergency staff meeting after school. All children are sent home with a letter that provides the facts and describes support services that will be available.

At the staff meeting, a police officer updates school personnel about the investigation of the incident. School officials report on the injured child's status, and teachers have an opportunity to express their reactions of shock and disbelief. The school's crisis response team describes the counseling and support services that will be available to students, staff, and parents.

School attendance the following day is near normal levels. For the next week, the school becomes a center for counseling and referral services and for community meetings about neighborhood violence.

Preparing for the Unexpected

One school crisis is handled so poorly that students are endangered and their psychological trauma is exacerbated. Another is managed so effectively that school operations quickly return to normal, students' psychological needs are addressed, and community confidence in school leadership is reinforced.

What accounts for the striking differences between these two situations? The second school district has been involved in systematic planning to deal with crisis situations. The first school district is—well, perhaps no different from yours.

To some extent, crises have always interrupted the routines of school life, but threats to children's safety and well-being have become increasingly common. Children today are exposed to extremely high levels of stress and trauma. Homicides by adolescents increased 61 percent between 1979 and 1989, and an estimated quarter million students carry guns to school daily (American Psychological Association 1993). A recent survey of 65,000 secondary students revealed that one-third of them felt unsafe at school, and one-half knew someone who carried a weapon to school (Centers for Disease Control 1992).

The sense of danger is especially salient in the inner city, as reflected in a sample of findings from recent surveys at urban high schools: (1) one-half of surveyed students reported knowing someone who was murdered (Pastore et al. 1991); (2) one in five students had been threatened with a gun (Sheley et al. 1992); and (3) one-half of respondents felt unsafe traveling to and from school (New Haven Public Schools 1992).

The typical administrator certification program does not devote specific attention to shootings, suicide, terminal illness, and natural disasters—events that are not to be expected in the course of an ordinary school day. In these turbulent times, however, the astute administrator does not question whether a crisis will occur, but when it will occur, how serious it will be, and what the response should be.

A crisis of major proportion calls for enlightened leadership: a take-charge manner combined with effective teamwork and delegation of vital operations. Even with forethought, it may be difficult to think clearly under conditions of emotional arousal. Response behaviors should be well learned and, ideally, practiced. Above all, the key is planning and preparation, based on a modicum of specialized knowledge about school crises.

A School Crisis Intervention Model

At the time of the Persian Gulf War, the Yale Child Study Center convened a forum of professionals to address the mental health needs of schoolchildren during the crisis. Although the international threat was resolved, participants resoundingly agreed that threats to the physical and mental well-being of children continued to be a grave concern. One of several projects to emerge from this group is our regional initiative on school crisis response.

  1. The regional team is composed of representatives from district-level teams and professionals from outside the school system.

  2. The school district crisis team includes administrators and other individuals with special responsibility for and/or expertise in crisis response (for example, health and mental health professionals, police officials). This team: (1) establishes districtwide guidelines and adapts recommendations of the regional team to district policies; (2) enables district staff to receive adequate ongoing training; (3) ensures that each school has a fully operational crisis intervention team; (4) serves as a liaison between the regional team and the individual school crisis teams; and (5) coordinates special assignments of school and community personnel in the event of a crisis.

  3. School crisis teams are primarily responsible for implementing the response plan at the time of a crisis. Building personnel are best able to provide direction and support to members of the school community as a crisis evolves and can continue to do so during the aftermath.

The principal should always be a member of the school crisis team and typically serves as chair. At least one assistant chair should be available to step in during the principal's absence. Other responsibilities of crisis team members include coordinating counseling services, handling media inquiries, communicating with staff and the community, and initiating a crowd control plan, if needed.

While there is no standard cast of characters, the school secretary and security personnel should probably be included. In addition, itinerant support staff (for example, school psychologists and social workers)—although not full-time employees—have valuable information to share during the planning process. Further, they can provide useful insights on school climate—for example, how it might be modified to increase school safety and to help students cope with difficulties. At the time of a crisis, they are typically redeployed to the school. Support staff, parent volunteers, and aides may serve important roles as well. The desirability of including a variety of individuals should be balanced by the need to have a well-functioning and cohesive team. Pitcher and Poland (1992) recommend an upper limit of eight persons.

Our School Crisis Intervention Model outlines issues regarding notification of staff, students, and parents at the time of a crisis. 1 A liaison with the regional or local police can assure prompt notification of the school team, as well as rapid response by police and security personnel in those situations when students and school staff are in immediate danger. Having a formal notification system will enable crisis team members to notify staff of emergencies outside of school hours and to quickly mobilize district-level clinical staff and resources. When needed, the team members can also notify additional schools that are either directly or indirectly involved (such as the school that a victim's sibling attends).

Counseling and support staff within the school should be familiar with the principles governing triage in school-based crisis intervention, outlined in Figure 1. The crisis team must also be aware of the need for continued services and close follow-up in the aftermath of a crisis. The team must balance the need for children and staff to deal with the emotions and reactions aroused by the crisis, against the compelling desire to “get things back to normal.” The model further outlines issues to consider in specific situations, such as a suicide or homicide of a student. 2

Figure 1. Principles of Triage in School-Based Crisis Intervention

  • Refer children with emergent mental health needs (for example, students assessed as potentially suicidal) directly to appropriate community resources, rather than provide evaluation or counseling services in the school. Identify appropriate emergent (immediate) and urgent (within 48 hours) local mental health resources for these purposes.

  • Offer children who are not in need of emergent mental health services limited immediate interventions, perhaps in a group setting if appropriate.

  • Make evaluations brief and goal-specific; defer more lengthy evaluations and services to a later time.

Key Elements of Training

Successful crisis intervention models must include staff development that focuses on both content and team process. Our regional team developed a full-day workshop that incorporates both of these key elements.

Content-level training begins with an overview of crisis theory and its implications in a school setting. We make a distinction between the kinds of events that affect an entire school community and crises in individuals' lives (for example, child abuse) that are not appropriate for crisis team response. The training then reviews concepts of grief and loss, placing them in a developmental context that reviews children's understanding of death at different ages (Schonfeld 1993). The inservice program next focuses on responses needed for particular kinds of crises, such as suicide or homicide.

The training emphasizes team building in the latter half of the day. Small-group exercises involving a hypothetical crisis enable team members to apply the model and to assume specific team roles. They also discuss situations that have no correct response—such as how much information to give students about a suicide when the story breaks just before the close of school for a weekend. The vignette helps staff consider these kinds of questions proactively and resolve them as a team.

Content and process are blended in the final segment of the training, when a panel of local school personnel discusses crisis situations they have encountered firsthand.

Implementation Issues and Obstacles

After receiving the training, three of the school districts in the original collaborative established formal procedures for crisis response. It was fortunate that they did so. The following school year, the three districts recorded a total of 43 separate incidents (not counting numerous suicide attempts) that required the use of crisis response procedures.

In New Haven, the largest and most urban of the three districts, injuries and deaths from shootings were the most common type of crisis. To establish a crisis team in each school, the district's plan made use of the existing system of school-based Mental Health Teams. 3

North Haven, the smallest and most suburban of the three districts, was beset by two serious bus accidents and a rash of suicide attempts. North Haven's district crisis team, which works in conjunction with school teams during a crisis, includes the town's police chief.

The third district, West Haven, also uses its district team either to assist school personnel or to take the lead, depending upon the situation. The West Haven crisis teams dealt with a variety of situations, which included student deaths from accidents and witnessing of fatal shootings.

As a consequence of training and planning, school and district crisis teams managed crises with increased skill and confidence, according to an informal evaluation by Regional Crisis Committee members. Some common occurrences, however, suggested the need for further training to address characteristic attitudes and reactions of administrators.

For example, building administrators are typically conditioned to “keep the lid on” their schools, especially because any kind of commotion invites negative attention and blame. This fosters a preference for handling situations directly and quietly. Thus, a building administrator may opt not to convene the school crisis team or notify the district team to assess the scope of a potential crisis, or may prematurely terminate crisis response efforts as a crisis runs its course.

Similarly, a crisis situation is likely to arouse an administrator's feelings of being singularly responsible for major problems that occur in the building. As a result, the administrator may revert to an autocratic management style. The more serious the crisis, however, the less likely it is that the administrator can address every important aspect of the crisis in a sensitive and deliberate manner. Again, preparation is the key. The constructive team process and mutual valuing of team members' contributions that evolve during crisis team planning can sustain members during an actual crisis.

The most common obstacles to maintaining a state of readiness, however, are scarce time and resources. Although crisis response does not require an inordinate effort, it does require ongoing attention. Left to themselves, some schools within a district will be more conscientious than others in developing crisis plans and maintaining a state of readiness. With a laissez-faire approach from central administration, the occasional crisis or close call becomes the primary motivator for sustaining crisis preparation efforts. Clearly, a proactive approach is preferable. This might involve: (1) monitoring of specific crisis preparation steps, such as those listed in Figure 2; and (2) conducting crisis drills. Crisis drills not only keep the response system well tuned, but provide a wake-up call about the ever-present possibility of crisis. (See Poland and Pitcher 1990 for valuable suggestions about crisis drills.)

Figure 2. Steps in Planning and Preparation for a Crisis

1. Identify school crisis team members.

2. Arrange training/retraining as needed for crisis team members.

3. Establish a crisis plan that includes the following:

  • Checklist of administrator responsibilities in the event of a crisis

  • Telephone tree for emergency notification of staff

  • Special crisis code (for PA system) to convene school crisis team

  • List of school personnel with special training (CPR, first aid, and so on)

  • Emergency procedures: assembly areas, evacuation routes, dismissal

  • Sample parent letters (templates stored on computer).

4. Review/update crisis plan with school crisis team; assign responsibilities.

5. Assemble/check contents of emergency supply kit (see Portis and Portis 1992).

6. Compile a crisis information packet, which may include:

  • Copy of school crisis plan and school district emergency procedures

  • Telephone lists: district-level team, community resources

  • List of all personnel in building: professionals, staff, volunteers, and so on

  • Location of student and staff emergency information and phone numbers

  • Map of building, with all rooms and entrances clearly marked

  • Location of emergency supply kit

  • Instructions for accessing computer files with sample parent letters

  • Informational materials for distribution to staff, parents, and students.

7. Orient entire staff on crisis response procedures and school plan.

The Importance of Prevention

A good crisis response system is not only proactive, but prevention-oriented. Prevention can operate on several levels.

Teachers prepare for a crisis every day as they build rapport and trust with students and as they model appropriate ways of expressing feelings. When many students in a school are affected by a crisis, the classroom may be the primary setting in which they begin to cope with personal reactions. The extent to which students convey their feelings depends upon the climate of the classroom. Trust and rapport are established as teachers discuss illness and death, among other topics, on a regular basis. Providing children with accurate and developmentally appropriate information helps to prevent misconceptions and disturbing associations that can complicate reactions to death and loss (Schonfeld 1993).

Teachers may also promote effective coping by students through formal instruction in life skills. Many districts (including New Haven, which offers a comprehensive K–12 social development program) recognize the need to promote positive social and health-related behaviors to facilitate personal growth and responsibility and to inoculate students from such perils as drug use, AIDS, teen pregnancy, violence, and suicide. Elements of a social development curriculum that help students cope with a crisis include stress management, awareness and expression of feelings, social problem solving, violence prevention, communication skills, interpersonal/peer relationship skills, and skills for coping with personal loss.

Promoting school safety is a natural accompaniment to crisis planning. As school team members consider the kinds of crises that may occur or circumstances that may exacerbate them, they may suggest preventive actions—for example, locking school entrances that cannot be monitored, eliminating environmental hazards, and addressing dangerous behaviors.

Finally, an invisible benefit of managing a crisis effectively is the prevention of complications and catastrophes that may result when crisis response efforts are absent or inept. Cooperative and successful crisis intervention by school personnel promotes feelings of pride and empowerment within the school environment, and fosters trust and support from the community.

Next Steps

While our Regional Committee has been productive, there is still much to be done. First, maintenance of existing systems is an ongoing effort. Crisis teams need to review and update plans every year, and the basic training in crisis response will need to be offered to new personnel and as a refresher course. Second, we would like to respond to the requests of participants in the initial training to follow up with more specialized training, such as techniques for counseling students in crisis. Third, we need to continue our coordination with community mental health providers and agencies to ensure that sufficient backup is available in the event of a catastrophic situation.

As is often the case, the project undertaken by the Regional Crisis Committee was an extra assignment for all of us, one not easily protected in the face of other responsibilities. It is clear that we need additional resources to sustain, let alone expand, the initiative. Similarly, we cannot realistically expect other school districts to replicate the efforts of our collaborative. Our next step, therefore, is to establish a regional school crisis prevention and response center that can offer the kinds of services we have been providing and serve as a resource for other regional centers. 4 Our long-term goal is a statewide crisis network that offers readily accessible services to every school district.

Our overall strategy for crisis response involves a balance among prevention, intervention, and reaction. Accidents, danger, and tragedy are a part of life. As educators, we protect schoolchildren the best we can, but we must also be prepared for the unthinkable. When a crisis does occur, we serve children best by recognizing and responding to their psychological needs. Doing so also helps to restore their ability to learn and enhances their coping skills and social development.

References

American Psychological Association. (1993). Violence and Youth: Psychology's Response, Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: APA.

Centers for Disease Control. (1992). Youth Suicide Prevention and Resource Guide. Atlanta: CDC.

New Haven Public Schools. (1992). Social Development Project 1991–1992 Evaluation Report: 192.

Pastore, D., M. Fisher, and S. Friedman. (1991). “Violence and Mental Health Risks Among Urban High School Students.” Journal of Developmental Behavior in Pediatrics 12, 4: 273–274.

Petersen, S., and R. L. Straub. (1992). School Crisis Survival Guide: Management Techniques and Materials for Counselors and Administrators. West Nyack, N.Y.: Center for Applied Research in Education.

Pitcher, G., and S. Poland. (1992). Crisis Intervention in the Schools. New York: Guilford Press.

Poland, S., and G. Pitcher. (Fall 1990). “Expect the Unexpected.” School Safety: 14–17.

Portis, M., and R. Portis. (November 1992). “Ready for Anything.” American School Board Journal: 41–43.

Schonfeld, D. J. (1993). “Talking with Children about Death.” Journal of Pediatric Health Care 7:269–274.

Schonfeld, D. J., M. Kline, and members of the Crisis Intervention Committee. (In press). “School-Based Crisis Intervention: An Organizational Model.” Crisis Intervention and Time-Limited Treatment.

Sheley, J., Z. McGee, and J. Wright. (1992). “Gun-Related Violence in and around Inner-City Schools.” American Journal for Disease Control 146:677–682.

End Notes

1 For a detailed description of the model and training program, see Schonfeld et al. (in press).

2 The School Crisis Survival Guide by Petersen and Straub (1992) is a valuable compendium of crisis intervention materials.

3 School-Based Mental Health Teams are a key element of James Comer's School Development Program, which had its origins in the New Haven Public Schools.

4 We gratefully acknowledge the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and the Graustein Memorial Fund for funding this project.

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