A Model for Responding to Tragedy in Schools
After the recent, devastating tornadoes that struck central Oklahoma this week, killing dozens, injuring hundreds, and causing billions in property loss, one thing is standing out in most people’s minds as being particularly tragic. The destruction of two elementary schools in Moore, and the students’ and teachers’ lives lost as a result, is one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of this disaster. Many people are already calling on schools in Oklahoma to have mandatory storm shelters (which is an excellent idea), so I wanted to add my two psychological cents on another aspect of disaster-readiness: a school-wide plan for action in the event of a crisis. My colleague Robert Doan and I developed this model in a chapter published a few years ago, but I thought it would be a good time to share it with a wider audience outside of just that book.
This model can be used by schools to guide preparations before and after a disaster to address student trauma. The authors adapted it based on information provided by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (Lerner, Lindell, & Volpe, 2003) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (Wong, Colwell, Evans, Lieberman, & Rubin, 2006) about their response to traumatic events. The proposed format can be used in addressing trauma that affects large numbers of students and staff (like a natural disaster) as well as crisis events that impact single individuals (like a family member dying).
It is important that schools be prepared in advance to deal with trauma situations and that the flow of information be well defined and understood by the entire system. Toward this end, a formal crisis response team that serves the role of gathering and distributing information is advised. This would be an on-campus team composed of the building principal (who reports decisions and actions to the superintendent), the school psychologist (if available), the school counselors, and the special education director (if the student or students are on Individualized Education Plans). Also included are the school nurse, on-campus police, those in charge of securing the school site, cafeteria manager, main entrance manager, and school secretary. The team’s duties would include:
- Development of a specific response plan that includes who is to be in charge if a crisis occurs (usually the principal).
- Coordination of all crisis team activity (i.e., the selection of a team leader for a particular crisis).
- Analyzing the extent of the trauma and providing assessment and counseling at the appropriate level and context.
- Conducting triage and medical interventions.
- Securing the campus.
- Informing parents of the situation.
- Providing food outside of regular schedules as appropriate and needed.
- Educating teachers to produce a staff that is sensitive to the symptomatic warning signs of stress and trauma. It is likely that many of the referrals concerning individual students traumatized by factors unique to their situation will come via teacher observation. In-service training and education is invaluable in such a process. It should include information about the type of events that precipitate trauma reactions, the symptom constellation associated with trauma, and how to best interact with students that have been traumatized.
- Deciding if external help and resources are required to deal with the event.
- Establishing a multidisciplinary team that is external to the school system to help with treatment if this seems advisable. Such a team can usually be recruited from the larger community in the form of volunteers and can include psychologists, counselors, medical doctors, nurses, etc. that have experience in crisis situations. In lieu of such a team, some districts decide to contract with local mental health agencies to provide services in the event of wide sweeping trauma within the school.
School districts are well advised to have well developed and thoughtfully devised programs permanently in place to deal with traumatic events before they occur. Responding after the fact usually results in uncoordinated efforts that fall short of the mark and can result in fairly severe backlash from the community. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, victorious schools prepare first and then experience a trauma.