Responding to a School Crisis
The immediate goals of school staff after a crisis are to reestablish a sense of safety and restore the learning environment at the school. The first step is to ensure that the building and grounds of the school are secure and well monitored so that students and staff can regain a sense of trust and safety.
To achieve these goals, each member of the school community must work both individually and as a member of a team to take the steps needed to restore balance to the school environment. Positive working relationships among school staff not only achieve the goal of recovery from a school crisis, but the staff's actions provide positive role models for students and life-long lessons about how to conduct oneself during times of adversity.
For information on funding for school-crisis recovery, please visit the U.S. Department of Education SERV Funding for Crisis Recovery.
(The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, through Congressional action, has made funding available under the auspices of Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence). Project SERV specifically funds "education-related services to local education agencies in which the learning environment has been disrupted" due to a sudden, unexpected or violent event that may involve physical harm and fear. Once a school's application is submitted and approved, the "education-related services" may include intermediate and longer-term mental health recovery efforts necessary to restore the learning environment of the school.)
For additional information on dealing with school crises, please visit the 3R's of School Crises and Disaster.
Individualized Guidelines for Key School Personnel
Working at the highest levels of leadership in schools and community mental health agencies, the superintendent of schools and the director of public mental health services (at the county or other regional level) play essential roles in establishing the overarching collaborative-organization agreements that permit and encourage collaborative mental health services in schools. These agreements provide important institutional sanction and the recognition that students and staff may need assistance after a school crisis.
In a crisis, the superintendent must be visible to the public, providing accurate information about:
- The incident or event
- The steps taken to secure the safety of students and staff
- The support being provided by the district to the school
- The assistance being provided to the district by community law enforcement, emergency services, and community health and mental health agencies
District Crisis Team Guidelines
The district crisis team is activated when the school principal determines that the crisis demands resources beyond the scope of the school-site crisis team.
The staff on the district crisis team should be identified at the beginning of each academic year and should represent the most skilled, trained, and experienced health and mental health crisis recovery personnel available to the school district.
Team members' roles include:
- Supporting the principal and the school-site crisis team
- Bringing calm to the school campus
- Coordinating the community health and mental health personnel who serve the school's staff and students
- Acting as a liaison with the superintendent's office and other central office personnel
- Providing up-to-date information and identifying additional services that the school may need from the district
District Crisis Team Leader Tasks
- Act as incident commander, officially convening the school-site team
- Request additional community support when needed
- Keep central office informed
Assistant Team Leader Tasks
- Work with the assistant principal to assess the extent of the crisis's physical and emotional impact on the school
- Serve as logistics coordinator and deploys district crisis team members to rooms designated for media, counseling, and parent meetings
School Counselors, School Psychologists, School Social Workers Tasks
- Provide additional individual and group counseling and psychological first aid to students and staff
School Nurses Tasks
- Monitor staff health problems and somatic complaints initiated by the crisis
School Site Crisis Team Guidelines
School crisis team positions are filled from among existing local school staff in preparation for immediate crisis response. The School Site Crisis Team Chart should be completed at the beginning of each school year and distributed to all personnel so that every staff member understands who is responsible for specific crisis-response functions. (Source: Jane's School Safety Handbook, 2001)
Two qualified alternates should also be identified for each position, in the event that the lead person is not available when needed. Provide an updated list, as needed, when assignments change during the year. Click here to view and download a printable School Site Crisis Team Chart. (Word file)
The principal is the instructional and operational leader of the school and gives final approval for all personnel and programs implemented on the school campus. She or he sets the tone for recovery, conveying concern and support for all recovery efforts, actively encouraging students and staff to make use of additional school-based services, and ensuring that students and staff seeking services are not stigmatized.
- Identify an in-house mental health program coordinator/director or point person who can provide leadership and technical expertise
- Delegate authority to a school counselor, school psychologist, or school social worker to assist with the organization, implementation, coordination, and maintenance of the intermediate and long-term mental health services in the school
- Review existing responsibilities of Health and Human Services personnel at school
- Adjust job roles and responsibilities as needed to meet the needs of students and staff
- Assign staff to review school records (academic records, attendance records, and health records) to help identify at-risk students who may need further mental health assistance
- Assess if students' family members are facing new challenges as a result of the traumatic event, keeping in mind that information about treatment is confidential
- Authorize recovery awareness training for teachers, Health and Human Services personnel, nurses, school staff, and community mental health personnel
- Convene school and community meetings to review interventions and gather information from the immediate period of crisis response
- Meet regularly with all mental health personnel to check needs of students and staff
- Meet with parents and community for regular information updates
- Provide staff with regular updates on procedures for assessing and referring students for additional support or treatment
- Meet with district-level personnel to review the regular services grant from Project SERV and to identify any other potential funding services
- Provide a written report to district administration
- Identify the intermediate and long-term recovery needs as expressed by staff, students, parents, community, and district administration
- Make logistical arrangements for a comfortable, quiet location on or off campus where school and community mental health professionals can provide mental health recovery services for students
- Prepare positive messages for the media that include reassurances that students and staff are cared for and that services are available on campus and/or in the community
- Reinforce to families that the best place for students following a crisis is at school, where they can participate in supportive and stabilizing school and social routines
The teacher is the instructional leader of the classroom. He or she sets the tone for recovery, conveying concern and support for all recovery efforts, with an eye to reducing or eliminating stigma for students who seek additional services and care. The teacher gives consent for students to be excused from class for mental health services and refers students to school mental health professionals. As the person who interacts with the most students on a daily basis, the teacher is also in an important position to advocate for services and effective schoolwide responses to crises.
The classroom teacher is in a unique position to contribute to or complement student recovery following traumatic events at school. The impact of the events is likely to play out in the classroom. Student behaviors may change, and these behaviors are sometimes best acknowledged and addressed in the classroom when a teacher has an understanding of how the crisis can affect student's behaviors.
For example, a number of students may be anxious and, in turn, become less cooperative or less active in classroom discussions. There may be angry outbursts or questions about safety. In each case, teachers should become knowledgeable about how to respond.
Click here for information on "The Effects of Trauma on Students" on this website. For additional information, please the visit the Resources for Schools section of this site.
- Re-establish classroom routine and maintain the teaching and learning environment of the classroom
- Help identify changes in student behavior that may indicate problems with health or mental health
- Help identify changes in life circumstances (family moving to a new home, job loss in the family, etc.) that are "secondary adversities" resulting from the traumatic event or that may place an additional burden on the student as he or she comes to grip with the event
- Keep open communication with students, staff, and administration
- Convey an open invitation for students to talk about how they are doing
- Expect regular updates from the administration describing school services
- Insist on question and answer time during staff meetings
Training in the intermediate and long-term recovery processes from crises will help teachers better understand the behavior of students. Intermediate and long-term mental health challenges may be unlike those of the immediate aftermath of a disaster or crisis. Each child and adult recovers at a different rate depending upon the level of his or her exposure to the event and other factors. Teachers may want to request additional training either as a way to prepare themselves for crises or to improve their effectiveness in the aftermath of an existing crisis. Staff development for teachers should include the following components:
- Honing observational skills
- Understanding symptoms
- Destigmatizing mental health referrals
- Recognizing students' sensitivity to changes
- Making student referrals
- Supporting and encouraging student self-care and stress reduction
School Mental Health Provider Guidelines
The school counselor, school psychologist, and school social worker are the in-house mental health professionals of the school. One of these individuals may be identified as the leader of the crisis team and may subsequently coordinate or direct the school-based mental health recovery program to meet intermediate and long-term mental health needs of students and staff. She or he may identify additional mental health resources in the community and negotiate and oversee the overall mental health recovery program and the role of community providers in the school. He or she sets the tone for recovery, conveying concern and support for all recovery efforts and actively reducing or eliminating stigma for students who seek additional psychoeducation services about the effects of traumatic stress, loss, and grief. These mental health providers engage in active outreach to students and staff.
- Provide support, technical assistance, and advice to the principal
- Provide support, consultation, training, and technical assistance, as needed, to school staff
- Provide mental health recovery information and support to parents
- Promote staff self-care and teach adults stress-reduction techniques
- Maintain close contact and open communication with students, staff, and parents
- Work closely with the principal to develop and maintain the on-site mental health program
- When authorized by the principal, serve as a liaison with community-based agencies and monitor the work of community mental health professionals providing services to students on campus
School Nurse Guidelines
The school nurse is the school-based professional who accesses health and medical services for students. His or her role is to support the long-term recovery of students and staff by providing information and consultation about the effects that psychological trauma and depression may have on health. She or he is a member of the crisis team along with the school counselor, school psychologist, and school social worker, assisting with the identification of students who are at risk for long-term mental health challenges because of the traumatic event. The school nurse helps set the tone for recovery, actively reducing or eliminating stigma for students who seek additional health and mental health services and care through screening, health education, and outreach services.
- Oversee the health and well-being of students
- Assist in identifying children and staff who may need additional mental health services and support, especially students and personnel who present with somatic complaints
- Provide training, when appropriate, to students and personnel about the interplay of health and mental health factors
- Monitor the health of high-risk students
- Coordinate health and mental health referrals from staff
Community Mental Health Professional Guidelines
The community mental health professional serves as a supplemental mental health service provider and consultant to the school. His or her role is to support, not supplant, the mental health services that are provided by the school counselor, school psychologist, and school social worker. She or he helps set the tone for recovery, conveying concern and support for all recovery efforts, with an eye to reducing or eliminating stigma for students who seek additional services and care. The community mental health professional also helps the school site administrator recognize and plan for intermediate and long-term services for staff and may play a primary role in responding to unforeseen crises that arise during successive phases of recovery.
- Identify and establish contact with child trauma referral and treatment agencies specific to the needs of the school in crisis
- Provide support, consultation, and training recommendations to school staff focused on topics such as student self-care and stress-reduction techniques
- Provide the school principal with a monthly mental health service report
Selecting the Most Effective Community Mental Health Providers
The most effective mental health providers are those who are carefully screened for experience and training in child trauma treatment. This experience may include special certification for working with students, licensure in a related area, or evidence of special child trauma treatment coursework.