School districts encounter a range of crisis situations ranging from coping with a child diagnosed with a terminal illness to a student suicide to threats of violence. Yet, administrators and counselors have found ways to calmly and effectively handle these challenges thanks in part to having established crisis teams and plans in place.
Administrators from the four districts spoke on a panel recently to members of the Regional Crisis Team coordinated by Putnam Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The Regional Crisis Team, recipient of the American Red Cross of Westchester Community Impact Award in 2009, was established in 1999 after the tragic events at Columbine High School prompted area mental health professionals to take proactive measures to assist school districts should they experience a serious crisis situation related to a national disaster, school violence, or the death of a school community member.
Panelists included Wendy Gentile, assistant principal of Carmel High School in Carmel; James Skoog, principal of Westorchard Elementary School in Chappaqua; Susan Strauss, principal of Walter Panas High School in the Lakeland school district; and Adam VanDerStuyf, principal of the Fox Meadow High School at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES.
Speaking to a group that included school psychologists and social workers, the panelists shared what they have learned from their experiences with tragedy and other crises. Skoog said that he keeps three things in mind when responding to a crisis: care, communication and confidence.
“The first priority is making sure that you are taking care of the situation, that everyone is safe,” he said. “Then, you need accurate and clear communication so everyone understands what actually happened. Finally, getting the building back to normal is important, so staff and community members feel they are in good hands.”
VanDerStuyf urged teams to practice their crisis response plans often and to debrief all members of the team at each stage of a real crisis, as well as in the aftermath of the crisis.
Strauss’s comments struck a chord with those gathered when she said, “You will need help. Needing help isn’t an admission that you can’t do your job. You need help so you can do your job.”
The Regional Crisis Team comprises volunteers from various school districts and other community mental health agencies in the region. The team is available to provide onsite post-crisis support (consultation, observation, counseling, etc.) and follow-up (debriefing, evaluation, etc.) services after the occurrence of a serious school crisis.
BOCES Assistant Superintendent Lynn Allen reminded those in attendance that the Regional Crisis team has resources such as scripts, letters and press releases that could be helpful if a district is experiencing a similar crisis.