Crisis Response and Planning

[Author's note: the target audience of this page are school employees, particularly school administration officials and building leadership teams. Parents and teachers may find more use in reviewing some risk factors and indicators I've put together of school violence and student suicide.]

Background and Personal Reflections

When most people think of school crises, I would imagine they picture a hostile gunman firing rounds into classrooms or a bomb-squad frantically searching for explosives in school lockers. In fact, such crisis events are very, very, very uncommon. These are highly unlikely exmples of a type of crisis situation that a school may encounter. A school crisis could generally be defined as any event which significantly disrupts student learning. This could include a student death, the firing of a teacher, or a natural disaster such as a flood or tornado which damages the school or community. The far more likely crisis scenario in today's schools involves a student who lost his or her life in a vehicle accident.

My first year working as a school psychologist, the principal at the high school gave me a great piece of insight. He told me, "Your life will change when the phone rings." For school psychologists, school counselors, and school administrators, the one phone call we fear the most is the call in which we are informed that a member of our school community has lost their life.

I attended a workshop in which I was trained to become a regional crisis responder. As part of that training, I learned that the #1 cause of death for teenagers in the USA is automobile accidents. Despite that fact, it has been my experience that most schools focus more of their time on developing evacuation plans for gas leaks than they do making sure they are prepared to respond to a student death.

Most schools/districts today have an emergency response plan that outlines the specific procedures teachers are to follow if a building intruder were to enter the school or if a natural disaster were to impact the community. During my internship year, it wasn't until I read through the district response plan that I learned I was assigned to be on the district crisis response team. No one had told me that I would be responsible to respond to a crisis within the district. Could it be that you are also on your district's team and no one has told you?

The Crisis Team

As soon as reasonable following the crisis, your school will want to activate the crisis team. (Of course, this is not the same team as your IEP team or your student intervention team.) The crisis team's primary primary responsibility during this time is to provide resources and stability until near-normal daily activities and routines can be restored. The crisis team's composition will look different in different schools, depending largely on the size of the district and the community composition. It's important to choose members of the crisis team who demonstrate rational thinking under pressure. Remember that it's important to keep the peace during times of crisis; both students' and adults' emotions may be elevated following crisis events.

Suggested School Crisis Team Membership

    • School/District Administration - The administrator's primary role will be to ensure the district crisis plan is carried out and the other team members have the support they need to carry out their duties on the team. The administration is also responsible for the feasibility, and implementation, and periodic review of the plan.

    • School Mental Health Professionals - The mental health providers provide a "triage" model of mental health. Students and teachers often need to speak to trained professionals who can address the immediate mental health needs of those in crisis. This is not therapy -- it's no more than 10 minutes per student/client who seek mental health support. These providers can chose whether to make a referral to a community mental health agency or simply to follow up with the student/client in a few hours or days to check their progress.

    • Medical Professionals - Your school nurse won't be able to handle the needs of hundreds of injured students at once. Having arrangements with community health centers and hospitals for emergency services is an important consideration.

    • Food Service Providers - In the event of a natural disaster or other structural calamity, often times students and school employees may need food and water during the wait for assistance. This wait may be as short as a few minutes or several hours. It's important to have ample emergency food storage in reserve for such an event. Consider also food refrigeration, preparation, and transportation needs.

    • Mechanical/Facilities/Custodial Crews - In a crisis event which disrupts the school structure, human safety needs to be considered. After a fire, cleaning crews will need to be on hand. After a major water leak, someone will need to know where to find the nearest supply closet of mops and buckets. In the event of a major structural damage, temporary shelter may need to be created in gymnasiums, locker rooms, or hallways - and someone needs to have the keys to those locations. When dangerous chemicals are present, someone needs to know how to clean up the mess safely. Having these types of staff members on the crisis team is also an important consideration.

    • Local Law Enforcement, Emergency Management, and Public Safety Officials - Creating a great district crisis policy is of little use if the local law enforcement officials do not know their role in the process. Keeping the local police involved in crisis planning is important. Local city utility managers, fire departments, EMS, public works, and grounds crews should be considered when making crisis plans. It's almost certain that your school will need the support of these individuals and agencies.

    • Transportation/Sheltering Liaison - In the event that the school is unsafe for students, students and adults in the schools will need to be moved to safer locations. Arrangements with local transportation companies and public venues should be arranged, in case of the need for temporary shelters. Hotels, community centers, churches, etc. could all be considered for these needs.

    • Media Representative - Having a single person responsible of information dissemination allows for other team members to focus on their roles, not on answering media inquiries.

    • Clergy/Religious Leaders - In times in crisis, people seek answers. While these crisis team members should not be allowed to meet with students on school property, having a plan for their participation at local churches should be considered.

Creating The Crisis Plan

As anyone with experience with crisis situations will tell you, you never want to design a crisis plan during a crisis. It would be like trying to build an airplane while you're in the air. Thankfully, model crisis plans can be found online from several state departments of education to review for free. A model Kansas plan can be found here. The Kansas Center for Safe and Prepared Schools website also has a lot of good information related to safety and security (including times of crisis.) Another helpful source of information may come from collaborating with a neighboring school district in order to brainstorm about local community resources that may also be useful in your school's plan. You may wish to develop an agreement with the other local district in order to utilize some of their school resources in a time of crisis (probably a reciprocal agreement.)

Many schools rely on the use of the National Incident Management System during the crisis event. This would mean that some of the members of the Crisis Team may also benefit from receiving training in NIMS in order to collaborate with local emergency responders and law enforcement as these agencies will almost certainly be using NIMS to coordinate their efforts.

Reviewing the Crisis Plan

A good rule of thumb would be to meet with your entire crisis team (including community members and outside agency representatives) at least once per year. Meet with your school-based faculty and staff once per semester to review your crisis plan. An outdated plan can be hard to implement or adapt in times of crisis. Making sure your plan is up-to-date is an important role of the district administration. Becoming familiar with your your responsibilities (and the responsibilities of the others on the team) is vital.

Conclusions and Further Reading Recommendations

This page is not intended to be a comprehensive resource about crisis planning or response. The purpose of this page was to provide a brief overview of the process of organizing a crisis team, creating a crisis plan, and to provide a rational for doing so. Several links are present in this page which can help you get more details about these topics and more. If nothing else, I hope you understand the importance of creating and practicing a crisis plan before a crisis hits your school.

In addition to creating a crisis plan, I suggest your school/district also review related school policies which may be be put into the spotlight in the event of a school crisis. For example, what information should be released if a student commits suicide? Should you cancel a basketball game if a player is killed in a car wreck? Can a funeral be conducted in the school gym? What information needs to be released to the media? The answers to these questions and more can be found online from trusted experts in the field. I highly suggest starting with the guidance from the "Best Practices in School Crisis Response and Intervention" as well as the resources available through NASP. Here's a great list of other crisis response links.