Responding to a School Crisis: Tips for Educators in Elementary & Secondary Schools

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT and Carly Cohen Fox

The day begins like any other day. Students arrive smiling and chatting, ready for a day of school. They gather in the hallways, talking, slamming lockers, then coalesce into their classrooms. Classes begin. No one suspects that this might be anything other than the normal, hectic, active school day. And then, crisis!

Perhaps a teacher has collapsed in the hall with her students all around. Or a rumor has circulated that a student has taken his or her own life. Or a distraught mother rushed into a classroom and announced that her child’s father has been killed in a car accident. Or a father stormed in with a gun to collect his children, whom the school knows are court-ordered into their mother’s custody.

As an educator facing a shattered paradigm of safety, what do you do? How will you intervene? Who will you call for help? And what will you do in the awful time before the help arrives? The following are suggestions, first, for immediate crisis intervention; for follow up, after you have had time to gather information; and for yourself in general, to help you cultivate an ability to maintain calm and focus during a crisis.

Immediate Crisis Intervention

When your school is in crisis, it is important to first assess how you yourself are feeling, and whether you are able to model a calm, appropriate response. Determine whether you need reinforcement from your coworkers. Assess whether the situation is dangerous for your students. If so, speak in a clear, calm voice, and conduct the students to a safe place where you can all sit down. Sitting will prevent you from pacing, which could increase–not reduce–anxiety in your students. Reassure them that you will stay with them for as long as needed. If possible, allow the students to call their parents, and meet with the parents as they arrive. As they are likely to be very anxious, speak to the parents calmly and directly.

Follow-up

After the immediate crisis has passed, address the fear and anxiety your students may feel. Provide correct information. Deter rumors by allowing the students to talk about what they have seen and heard. If your students are very young, ask if they have heard new words that need explaining. Provide paper, and ask them to draw or write about their perceptions. Take time to share their work. Compose a letter to parents providing updated information, and directing them to optional community counseling resources.

Taking Care of Yourself

Take time to address your own needs following the intervention. You may feel fatigued. Compel yourself to relax by taking deep breaths and stretching. Process the events with your coworkers, affirming the things you and the others did well in your intervention, and identifying what you can learn from the experience for next time.

Consider the following tips for developing stress-resistance. You will need reliable personal strategies to diffuse the stress of a crisis intervention. One way to begin is to acknowledge your feelings about the crisis events. Allow yourself the space to review and reflect, and identify a way to get the information “out” where you can look at it objectively, through journaling or discussion with a trusted friend. Visit a place that is peaceful to you, such as a park, art gallery, or religious space. Identify ways to take yourself away from the crisis, such as music, exercise, or meditation. Develop compelling interests separate from your work, to which you can turn when your work becomes a source of excess stress.

Does YOUR school have a plan?

In this age of escalating and seemingly random school violence, is your school’s crisis intervention plan sufficient for any foreseeable event? Does it specify step-by-step procedures? Are everyone’s responsibilities clearly defined? If not, it is necessary to convene school staff for crisis intervention planning. The following are suggestions for a) preventative programming, b) for establishing school crisis intervention policy, and c) for establishing channels of communication between school personnel and parents.

Preventative strategies

For a safe classroom, provide a forum for students to articulate their fears of violence. Teach conflict resolution strategies, and skills for coping with disappointment and loss. Make yourself available to students on a one-on-one basis when possible. Empower students to identify their choices of responses in a potentially violent situation, and to identify the consequences of each choice. Role-play walking away from a fight. Empower students to take responsibility for their own and others’ safety by reporting their peers’ conversations about guns and threats of violence. Provide a suggestion box for students to report these concerns anonymously. Help students identify their values. Build self-esteem in students by helping them develop their interests and talents, and helping them to see possibilities in their future.

School crisis intervention policy

Recommend that the school administration convene the school staff to brainstorm a list of everything that needs to occur during a crisis. This list should include identifying the crisis, removing students from dangerous areas, contacting the police or other emergency services, and communicating the danger among the school community. What else should be on the list? How should each be accomplished? Are teachers well suited to different responsibilities than counselors? Who should coordinate the intervention? Delegate each task to a specific person, and create a flow chart for clarity. After the crisis intervention plan is in place, have regular drills to familiarize students and professionals with the procedures.

Additional suggestions for increasing safety in a potential crisis include coordinating with the local phone company to provide teachers with mobile phones, to allow them to call 911 at any time. Hiring security guards or organizing teachers and parents into shifts to be present in school hallways can deter potential crises. Finally, establishing a peer mediator program can provide students with a sense of responsibility for school problem solving.

Facilitating communication between school and home

Communication can improve problem solving and crisis prevention strategies. It is important to address children’s access to guns at home, and how parents can protect their own children and the school by installing gun locks, or by removing the guns from the home. Other issues to address include, should a dress code be instituted to eliminate peer pressure to have certain items, and to eliminate clothing that could conceal a weapon? Should metal detectors be installed? Should students be required to carry see-through backpacks?

Crisis intervention and safety planning involves many layers of involvement by both parents and school staff. Including prevention programs at home, in the classroom, and in the larger school community; planning for a crisis, with diligence assigning roles to teachers, counselors, administrators, and others; and continuous refining of the crisis plan through communication between parents and schools. With these steps, schools can be reclaimed as a safe place to work and learn.

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