Lack of planning can result in confusion, escalation of the crisis, and potential harm to the student or others.
A crisis in the school is any occasion when a student's behavior requires immediate attention to protect the physical and/or psychological safety of that student or others. The crisis could be related to either violence (individual or group) or suicide; in either cases, a school plan should be in place for managing such a crisis.
A planning committee that would be convened by school or district administration should promulgate the plan for crisis intervention in the school. The committee should include representatives from the school, district administration, health and human services, law enforcement, community agencies, school counsel or other legal services, businesses, parents, students, churches and other religious groups, architects, engineers, community leaders, and lawmakers (and any other individuals or groups that could be of assistance). The committee should identify and discuss all possible problems and solutions and then write the school crisis plan.
The plan must be discussed, learned, and rehearsed, so that all personnel are aware of the procedures. This is a good project for an inservice day. All involved must watch for "glitches" in the plan (either procedural or human error) and take action to fix those. Some school personnel may be of little assistance in a crisis situation. Duties should be assigned with great care.
Listed below are the components of school plans for crisis intervention in the case of suicide, violence, or any combination of the two. These plans can be modified for use in any crisis situation.
Components of a School Crisis Plan
The "Three-legged Stool"-Policies and Procedures, Facilities, and Personnel
Policy and procedures. The policy and procedures document must be (a) written and approved by the committee with input from the school board attorney or other legal services, (b) presented to the school board for approval, and (c) presented to the faculty and other school personnel. It should include specific information about procuring emergency assistance, communication within the school and district, communication with community agencies (including law enforcement), communication with parents, specific duties for all school personnel, meetings of faculty and staff, and documentation of problems and efforts.
Facilities. A team or subcommittee that includes an architect should inspect the school and make suggestions for necessary modifications. Administrators and staff should be aware of "trouble spots" (parts of the building or grounds not subject to visual surveillance or control, hiding places, bathrooms, locker rooms, stairwells, and places where large groups gather). Trouble spots should be constantly monitored.
The planning committee should consult with engineers, electricians, and architects. To reduce school violence, we must move toward the "school of the future", in which security is of paramount importance-a "fortress" with fences, buildings with walls outside and center courtyards for light, trees, and flowers. We need ways to keep whole wings locked (e.g., during lunch period for a specific block of classrooms). Other suggestions include the following:
Install Plexiglas or unbreakable material rather than glass that shatters in danger zones.
Install locks (on outside entrances and classroom doors) to keep out intruders.
Some type of electronic communication system is absolutely essential-a panic button, beeper, walkie talkie, or telephone with only one number to push.
Maintain surveillance through "visual control". Remove obstructions and hiding places. Install cameras. Use faculty and student monitors.
Install metal detectors. Consider possibility of plastic weapons (e.g., plastic knives, plastic knuckles).
Secure chairs and tables.
Plan for possible problems that can't be fixed (e.g., gym bags, lockers, and automobiles). Address these in expectations, rights, and responsibilities of students.
Plan for a message to go out over the intercom, similar to "Code 5, A and D" (armed and dangerous) that would inform faculty and staff of a crisis situation (e.g., "Career service volunteers please meet in Room 24").
Personnel Among the absolute necessities for an effective management plan are sufficient and efficient faculty and staff- including a resource officer (a "real" officer who answers to law enforcement rather than to the school administration), school psychologists, counselors, community agency representatives, trained volunteers, and substitutes.
Training in crisis intervention must be made available for all personnel. The training components should include local, state, and federal law; approved policy and procedures; appropriate communication; first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation; what to do if threatened with a weapon; nonviolent means of resolving a crisis (verbal de-escalation); and physical restraint.
Things for staff to remember in a crisis include the following:
Speed of response is an important factor. This is not a "referral!" When summoning help, call! Don't write!
Stay where you are unless told to move. Don't move in the halls unless told to do so. Follow the plan.
Faculty and staff must carry out pre-assigned duties.
Documentation can come later.
Students should also be taught to respond appropriately in a crisis situation. They must understand that in case of a crisis, there is no room for error and no time to play. For example, students should learn to (a) respond immediately to simple commands (e.g., "Stop!"), (b) follow the adult's directions (e.g., "Go immediately to the hallway"), and (c) seek help during a crisis (e.g., to know where to find assistance and to say, "My teacher needs help in Room 10").
Components of a Plan for Suicide Prevention
- Detecting signs of suicidal intent.
- Assessing the student's potential for suicide.
- Crisis intervention, including emergency medical assistance.
- Communicating with students in crisis.
- Communicating with parents or guardians.
- Referral to school services or personnel, including special education.
- Assisting parents with referral to community agencies or private treatment providers.
- Making services available in the school and community.
- Working with community agencies.
- Working with the media.
- Liaison with treatment providers.
- Follow-up activity after a suicide attempt.
- Procedures to follow in the event of a completed suicide.
- Training for faculty, staff, parents, mental health workers assigned to the school, and volunteers.
- Changes in school policies and procedures.
- Providing information to students.
Consultation and Documentation after a Crisis Incident
After a crisis, a teacher or administrator would be well-advised to (a) consult with other authorities whenever possible regarding the choice of procedures used during the incident and (b) document the crisis incident completely, factually, and honestly. Inadequate record keeping is considered a substandard practice in education, law, and mental health. Documentation should follow the prescribed district procedures, which should include the following:
A brief description of facts that caused the school professionals to consider the situation an emergency.
Rationale for the choice of intervention (including explicit discussion of other less intrusive or less restrictive procedures considered and reasons for rejecting each).
Specific criteria for implementing less restrictive measures (e.g., releasing student from restraint).
Steps taken to prevent another similar incident.
Exact time and duration of the incident.
Description of care given during the incident (e.g., counseling, medication, etc.).
Time of notification of other professionals (e.g., physician, psychologist, resource officer).
Time of appropriate follow-up activity (e.g., incident review).
Description of property damage or injury suffered (by the student or others) including photographs, if possible.
Post-crisis follow-up procedures
After any crisis occurs, the planning committee and faculty should meet for "debriefing". Any "weak or missing links" should be noted, as well as necessary changes to the plan. Proposed changes should be submitted to faculty and administrators, and then to the school board for approval.Eleanor Guetzloe, Ed.D., is on the faculty at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. This material is abstracted from handouts from the T/TAC sponsored conference, Challenging Behavior: Making Our Schools Safe Again, May 1, 1997.