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.
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:
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.
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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