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Strategy: Crisis Planning in Schools

Strategy Comprehensive crisis management policies prepare school administrators and staff to respond appropriately to violence, criminal acts on campus, . . .


Comprehensive crisis management policies prepare school administrators and staff to respond appropriately to violence, criminal acts on campus, and natural emergencies. The policies cover response after the fact, but also include prevention and intervention actions that should be taken by staff.

Community Problem Addressed

Unanticipated tragic events can quickly escalate into a school-wide catastrophe if not dealt with immediately and effectively. Knowing what to do when a crisis occurs can minimize the chaos, rumors, and the impact of the event on students and the community. The strategy addresses not only a school's preparedness to deal with natural disasters but also the disruption and chaos that can follow gang-related or other violent incidents, serious accidents, or suicides involving students. The crisis response plan can help avert escalation of violent incidents by ensuring that administrators address school security issues and the need for law enforcement or medical assistance in a rapid and efficient manner.

Key Components

Development of crisis policies usually includes three phases: organizing a crisis management team; establishing plans of action for the team during specific kinds of emergencies; and training for crisis teams, faculty, and students in how to respond in case of emergencies, including violent incidents on campus. The policies should cover such issues as the protocol for reporting incidents, designating safe places on campus, handling groups of students and providing for their safety, and notifying parents and others in the community as the situation warrants.

Most schools have well-understood policies for responses to such natural disasters as tornadoes or floods. However, many schools do not have policies that specify the roles and responsibilities of staff, parents, police, school boards, teens, and faculty in case of student abduction, gang violence, shooting incidents at the school, or large-scale fights among students. Such policies help ensure that faculty, staff, and students know how to report an incident and can locate safe places on campus or outside the building, and the school administrators and staff can mobilize the appropriate law enforcement and medical assistance. The policies may also include provision for counseling students and staff following violent incidents or deaths of students or staff. For the policy to be effective, all staff and students must be educated and trained. In addition, parents and others in the community must be aware of the policy and how they can contact the school in case of emergencies.

Key Partnerships

Local law enforcement, the school board, principals, teachers, parents, school staff, and student representatives all should play a role in designing the crisis management policy; determining training needs of staff who will use it; and setting guidelines for prevention, intervention, and post-crisis action.

Potential Obstacles

Some cities still feel immune from violence, believing their schools will not be affected. They may not emphasize crisis management planning for such incidents or they may be less than willing to develop such policies. Parent groups and teachers can convince reluctant administrators to pursue crisis management planning by reminding them that, while occurrences requiring use of the policy may be rare, rapid and effective response is as vital as in any natural disaster or emergency.

Examples of Success and Results

After a school shooting took place in a high school in their community in March 1998, the Nettleton School District, led by a crisis response team, formulated a crisis response plan to deal with any unanticipated tragic event in its schools. Taking the lessons learned during the Jonesboro, Arkansas [population 46,535], crisis, the crisis response team developed an in-depth plan that all staff members were thoroughly trained in. Included in the team are counselors, media representatives, the faith community, licensed child care providers, service providers such as caterers, and parents.

The plan defines roles of members of the crisis team, as well as other members of school staff. These roles include immediate responses (getting students out of danger, administering first aid, beginning a calling tree, etc.), deciding about scheduling changes, working with local police, and identifying counseling needs. The plan shows staff how to determine the nature and details of the crisis and provides guidelines for media relations. Agendas for staff meetings immediately following the crisis, as well as debriefing formats, are covered.

After being trained on the crisis plan, school staff feel much safer and more equipped to deal with any future crisis. Parents have the peace of mind that the school is ready for most tragedies, and students understand that the school is making an attempt to keep them safe in the face of disaster. The school district will revise the plan when needed and will train all new staff on the plan.

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