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Schools that are safe and responsive have plans and procedures in place to deal with violent and disruptive behaviors that do occur. Over-reliance on suspension and expulsion is replaced by an extensive array of options that can be matched to the severity of the offense. In particular, well-prepared schools and districts have in place crisis intervention plans that detail the roles and procedures used to respond to crisis events.


How can schools begin to develop an array of options as an alternative to suspension and expulsion?

If we are to break the cycle of violence in American society, we must begin to look beyond a program of stiffer consequences to an array of effective responses geared toward the seriousness of the offense. A number of such alternative responses might be made available:

In-school disciplinary alternatives: Saturday school or in-school suspension keep students in school while being disciplined. The effectiveness of in-school suspension seems to depend on its implementation; programs with a well-trained supervisor that require students to continue their academic assignments are more likely to be effective.

Restitution: Restitution involves "setting things right" and is typically geared to the nature of the offense. Thus, vandals might be expected to clean up the vandalism, or perhaps even participate in a project to improve the physical environment.

Anger management: Aggressive students often lack self-control in social situations, perceiving the actions of others to be more hostile than they really are. Anger management classes or programs help aggressive students change their perceptions and learn alternative behaviors in conflict situations.

Individual behavior plans: In functional assessment, school psychologists or special education consultants use interviews, checklists, and observation to better understand the reasons for disruptive behavior, and develop a specific plan to address the behaviors of concern. Under the most recent revision of special education law, schools are responsible for conducting functional behavioral assessments and developing individual behavior plans for special education students in danger of a change in placement as a result of their behavior. While required for some special education students, the technology of functional assessment and individual behavior plans may provide a useful tool as well for dealing with the most difficult and problematic youngsters, whether disabled or non-disabled.

Alternative disciplinary methods: To shift the burden of discipline from administrators, some schools have developed alternative strategies or procedures for determining or assigning disciplinary consequences. Teen court uses a panel of students to hear disciplinary infractions and assign consequences. In restorative justice, students who have harmed another student are forced to face their victim and confront their action, with the goal being to engage in actions that restore a sense of justice.

Alternative settings: Some students problems may be so severe as to require an alternative setting in which to continue their education for some period of time. Well-planned and coordinated alternative schools may meet the needs of some students. Referral to special education may also provide some students with the more structured environment that they require.

Community team approaches: The problems of disruptive and violent youth are often highly complex, cutting across school, family, and the community. Thus, for the most severe cases, it is critical that child serving agencies-education, mental health, welfare, and law enforcement-act in concert. Recently, interagency approaches such as wraparound teams have become more widely used, increasing the communication and collaboration of child-serving agencies, and allowing them to develop comprehensive community-based plans for disruptive youth and their families.

It may well be that suspension and expulsion are often overused because there is simply no other alternative available. Developing an array of options for dealing with disruptive or violent behavior may reduce the need for suspension and expulsion, while at the same time keeping more students present and engaged in school.

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How should schools deal with intense disruption? Crisis Intervention and Management.

Watching many schools and districts be overwhelmed by the tragedies played out in living rooms throughout America in the last two years has led many administrators to wonder how their own school and district would react in the face of a crisis or strategy. The overwhelming conclusion reached by those who have lived through such a situation, and those who consider such possibilities carefully, is that planning is better than panic. All personnel and agencies must be prepared to respond in the face of crisis, must communicate that knowledge to all stakeholders, and must be prepared to deal with the aftermath of tragedy1. In recent school firearm incidents at the national level, quick thinking by well-trained school safety coordinators may have prevented serious tragedy or loss of life2. Three important components of planning for and responding to crisis should be kept in mind.

First, a well-developed crisis intervention plan is essential. The plan must specify the members and roles of the crisis response team, and describe training and communication. All staff must know all codes signaling emergencies, and be clear about what course of action to take in response to each type of announcement. Communication systems should be checked beforehand to ensure that all staff will receive notice of emergency announcements. Contacts with local law enforcement and mental health, the process by which those contacts must be made, and the roles of each agency during the crisis must all be pre-identified. Since crisis events can also spark rumor and misinformation, the plan should specify how facts about the incident will be gathered and reported. A well-developed plan must also specify actions to manage the media; where will they be stationed? who will speak with the media? how will students and parents be protected from unnecessary intrusions.

Just as importantly, the plan must be communicated: even the best of plans provide no protection if they simply languish on a shelf. All plans must be action plans that include a schedule of staff training, plans for communication with parents, and a schedule of ongoing meetings and communication among responsible community agencies. It is important to resolve the question of drill as part of the planning process; while some may argue that drills in crisis management seem to simply alarm students, others note that practice vastly decreases the likelihood of panic. What is important, however, is that the school safety team come to a considered decision on school crisis drills that reflects the needs of the school and community. Communication of the plan to students is another area requiring careful consideration. Revealing all communication codes obviously reduces their effectiveness in an emergency; on the other extreme, failing to have adequately communicated crisis plans to students may leave them confused and panicky in an emergency.

Finally, a crisis plan is not complete without planning for the aftermath of a crisis. An adequate plan takes into account the highly-charged nature of crisis, and plans for mental health services to meet the needs of victims, their families, and their friends. Which school mental health professionals (e.g., school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers) or community mental health agencies will be responsible for grief or trauma counseling? How will counseling be made available to students, staff, or parents? How will the facts of the situation be communicated to parents and the community? Crisis planning resources typically provide sample forms for communicating about a crisis event; having letters, procedures, and sample press notices pre-planned and on file will make it more likely that communication about a crisis event will be thoughtful and compassionate, not inflammatory.

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References

  1. American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. (1999). A practical guide for crisis response in our schools. Commack, NY: Author.
  2. In recent events in Cleveland, Ohio and Miami, Florida, school staff and safety coordinators acting on their training were able to intervene quickly in a weapons situation, preventing serious harm to students.
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Last updated: on Sep. 9, 2000
http://www.indiana.edu/~safeschl/response.html
Comment: safeschl@indiana.edu
Copyright 2000, The Trustees of Indiana University