A Model for School-based Crisis Preparedness and Response

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Schools are well-organized systems that function with great efficiency under normal conditions. During a crisis, however, schools face unusual demands. While maintaining day-to-day operations, they must adapt to unexpected and unpredictable influences. Both school staff members and students will be personally affected by the crisis. Therefore, at the time of a crisis it is very difficult for a school to organize an effective crisis intervention response and still maintain the required long-range perspective. Schools may underestimate the full impact of the crisis or feel overwhelmed by the extent and magnitude of it. For schools to effectively address the many issues that typically arise during a crisis, a preplanned, systematic organizational model to direct decisions is essential. To be effective, a school's crisis response model must anticipate the results of a crisis and identify the ways it will affect individuals and the community. This includes identifying and preparing for the typical reactions of young people of all ages. In addition, the model must identify and plan how to use the broad range of skills and knowledge represented by those on the school crisis response team, including those of collaborating professions, such as mental health and juvenile justice. Finally, the crisis response model must anticipate the future needs of the school population and develop plans to meet those needs.

School Crisis Response Team

School crisis response teams need to determine which crisis events are likely to require or benefit from a team response. In general, the following four crisis categories are included:

  • Death of a student, a staff member, or a community member whose death affects a significant portion of the school population.

  • Major environmental crisis, such as a flood or fire.

  • Situation that involves a threat to the physical safety of students, such as a schoolbus accident, even in the absence of injuries.

  • Situation that involves a perceived threat to the emotional well-being of students, such as may be precipitated by hate-crime graffiti or repetitive bomb threats.

Situations that involve only a few students, especially when trying to maintain privacy or confidentiality, are better addressed through means other than a school crisis response team, perhaps by a student assistance team or guidance counselor.

School Crisis Response Plan

A school crisis response plan should include guidelines for membership on the school crisis response team and the roles of its members; protocols for delivering crisis intervention services; and protocols for notifying team members, school staff, students, parents, and the community of information about a crisis. To respond to unique situations such as large-scale natural disasters or criminal activities, specific guidelines must be established. The plan must address three general areas: safety and security; dissemination of accurate information to school crisis response team members, school staff, students, parents, and, when appropriate, the general public; and the emotional and psychological needs of all parties. Experience shows that all three areas must be addressed concurrently. If they are not, none will be addressed effectively.

No ideal school crisis response plan exists that suits all the needs of all schools and school districts. The organizational model presented within this document intends to guide schools and school districts as they develop their own school crisis response plan. Individual schools and school districts will need to adapt the general model to their own unique needs and strengths.

The school crisis response plan proposed in this bulletin recommends that each community create three organizations to operate the three components needed to fully implement a crisis response plan—a school-based crisis intervention team, a district-level crisis intervention team, and a regional resource group.

School-based Crisis Intervention Team

Usually, the school-based crisis intervention team provides staff and students with the majority of direct services needed during most crisis events. However, the roles and functions of the three teams will vary according to the needs of each community. School systems can adjust the specific functions of these teams and the relationships among them to fit the district's and region's needs. For example, smaller school districts may have the district-level crisis intervention team provide students with more direct services than the school-based crisis intervention team provides.

District-level Crisis Intervention Team

The district-level crisis intervention team comprises members of the district office, representatives of school-based teams, and district-level collaborators and consultants such as personnel from the local mental health clinic, local police station, and/or fire department. The district-level crisis intervention team establishes district-wide policies that are relevant to crisis preparedness and response; oversees their implementation at the school level; requires and arranges training of school-based crisis intervention teams; establishes and maintains district-level connections with agencies and consultants; provides school-level teams with support and backup at the time of a crisis; coordinates the sharing of resources among school-level teams, such as assigning counseling staff from other schools to a school responding to a crisis; and oversees the implementation of the school crisis response plan across schools within the district.

Regional Resource Group

The regional resource group comprises representatives of the district-level team as well as relevant professionals from the community, including the mental health and juvenile justice sectors. This group provides a forum for sharing experiences among the participating school systems and collaborating experts; participates as indicated in district-level and school-level trainings; oversees the resource needs for the region; advocates for expansion of services, such as emergent mental health services, as necessary; establishes interdistrict agreements for sharing resources across district lines; and facilitates interdistrict sharing when a major school crisis puts an individual school system in need of resources.

The National Center for Children Exposed to Violence formed a regional resource group for this program in 1991 with the initial participating school districts of East Haven, New Haven, North Haven, and West Haven, Connecticut. Subsequently, additional school districts joined in the development of the organizational model and establishment of district-level policies. From this process, initial training for school staff, successful advocacy for the expansion of regional urgent mental health services for children in crisis, and creation of the current initiative described in this bulletin were implemented. The regional resource group that was developed for this program continues to meet quarterly.

Roles and Responsibilities of School-based and District-level Crisis Intervention Teams

The organizational model outlines specific positions and responsibilities for members of the school-level and district-level crisis intervention teams. These positions are crisis team chair, assistant chair, coordinator of counseling, staff notification coordinator, communications coordinator, media coordinator, and crowd management coordinator. Depending on the school or district, an individual team member may assume more than one position, or several team members may share the responsibilities of one position. Team members must receive training for their positions and develop an appreciation of other team members' responsibilities. More detailed information about these positions appears in the sidebar.

The notification protocol in the school crisis response plan outlines specific ways to efficiently notify school crisis response team members, school staff, students, parents, and community members about crisis events that occur both during and outside of school hours. This protocol outlines provisions that may be needed during a crisis—supportive and appropriate classroom interventions;3 designated rooms within the school that are staffed by counseling personnel who can provide short-term support services to students individually and in groups; and support groups during and after the crisis. The organizational model assigns roles to individuals to address the many communication needs of schools and communities during a crisis. Within this framework, the school crisis response team can manage communications, including rapidly contacting all necessary personnel; developing and circulating written notices for staff, students, parents, the community, and the media; responding to the increased need to evaluate and assemble information as it develops; and managing both local and national media. The school crisis response team can coordinate the efforts of school personnel and parents with those of police officers and mental health and medical professionals to address the emotional responses that evolve from traumatic and critical situations. The school crisis response team can also perform preliminary assessments of liabilities and vulnerabilities associated with each school and district. Factors that affect vulnerabilities include the population served by the school or district, location and physical layout of the buildings, geographic and socioeconomic makeup of the area, and behavioral trends exhibited within the student population.

Schools are better able to function with minimal disruption in the immediate aftermath of a crisis if they have sufficient structure in place to coordinate services when the crisis occurs. Although adjustments will need to be made to student activities, such as postponing exams or substituting instructional activities with supportive classroom discussions about the crisis event, it is best to continue routine school activities as much as possible. Students who feel unable to maintain their regular school schedule should be permitted to seek counseling or support services in a less structured setting, such as a support room or guidance counselor's office. Some crisis situations necessitate closing a school for periods of time. However, whenever possible, it is best to avoid school closings and early dismissals, particularly during the crisis. Students find comfort in the schoolday routine and in the company of their peers and trusted adults. In addition, canceling school disrupts the family routine and places an additional burden on working parents who must scramble to find alternate childcare. Children who are already traumatized by a crisis may be placed in unfamiliar and unsatisfactory last-minute daycare. Further, temporary removal from school can sometimes increase a student's fears about returning to school and may engender school avoidance behaviors. In the aftermath of a crisis, if student safety is a concern at the school's location, it may be necessary to reconvene school in an alternate location. School crisis response plans should include arrangements for this possibility.

Without having in place a school crisis response plan and an infrastructure to support it, an effective response to a crisis is unlikely. When developing a school crisis response plan, teams must begin with general protocols to handle elements present in all crises. However, these general protocols must be flexible so they can be modified to address the unique needs of special situations, such as natural disasters or criminal activities.

Roles of Crisis Team Members

Crisis team chair—Convenes scheduled and emergency team meetings, oversees both broad and specific team functions, ensures that the required resources are available to each team member for assigned duties, and communicates with the district-level team. Is often an administrator or designee.

Assistant chair—Assists the crisis team chair with all functions and substitutes for the chair in the chair's absence.

Coordinator of counseling—Develops mechanisms for ongoing training of crisis team members and other school staff and identifies and establishes liaisons with community resources for staff and student counseling. At the time of a crisis, determines the extent of counseling services needed, mobilizes community resources, and oversees the mental health services provided to students. Must have appropriate counseling and mental health skills and experience.

Staff notification coordinator—Establishes, coordinates, and initiates the telephone tree when school is not in session to contact the crisis team and general school staff, including itinerant, part-time, and paraprofessional staff. Also establishes a plan to rapidly disseminate relevant information to all staff during regular school hours.

Communications coordinator—Conducts all direct in-house communications, screens incoming calls, and maintains a log of telephone calls related to the crisis event. Helps the staff notification coordinator develop a notification protocol for a crisis event that occurs during the schoolday.

Media coordinator—Contacts the media; prepares statements to disseminate to staff, students, parents, and the community; and maintains ongoing contact with police, emergency services, hospital representatives, and the district office to keep information current. Handles all media requests for information and responds after coordinating a response with the media coordinator for the district-level team.

Crowd management coordinator—In collaboration with local police and fire departments, develops and implements plans for crowd management and movement during crises, including any required evacuation plans and security measures. Crowd management plans must anticipate many scenarios, including the need to cordon off areas to preserve physical evidence or to manage increased vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Because of the possibility of actual threats to the physical safety of students, crowd management plans must provide for safe and organized movement of students in a way that minimizes the risk of harm to them under various threats, such as sniper fire.

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School Crisis Response Initiative
September 2003