School Crisis Response Plans

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Witnessing or even being involved in an act of violence is perhaps one of the most traumatic events that can take place in a person’s life. The fact that such an event could take place even in the context of a school, where parents and teachers alike prefer to think that children and teens are safe and protected, has only served to raise a specter of horror around this area of concern ever since the well-known school shooting at Columbine High in 1999. In the now fourteen years that have followed, however, an unexpected silver lining to the grisly event has been that as schools formed crisis plans to combat this potential evil, more explicit attention was focused even on other, basically unrelated crises such as natural disasters and school bus crashes. As even before copycat-type shootings arose after Columbine, there had always, of course, been natural disasters and even other random, less calculated acts of violence, the fact that more attention was being paid to student safety and especially to students’ mental health and recovery after such events, even if those students were only tangentially involved and thus not seen as true victims, can only be considered a positive step in the right direction. Such a new, more focused approach to crisis and aftermath response can be seen from the national level to the local level, and at times it is necessary to compare the two approaches in order to determine whether local schools’ crisis plans are in line with experts’ recommended approaches. Thus, upon reviewing the crisis plan of one local high school—namely, Central High School, in Phoenix, Arizona—it quickly becomes apparent that overall the authors of the plan have basically complied with the recommendations of experts, but that there are some details in which this could be improved, such as a focus on prevention and a more explicit procedure to handle the rotation of team members on the crisis response team (see Table 1).

In order to have a truly comprehensive crisis response plan, Central High School must adopt the recommendations of experts who advise greater awareness of the dimension related to crisis prevention. Aftermath is but one part of a larger scheme, and, if crisis plans are to be effective, they must take into account all necessary components. As Kowan and Rossen (2013) put it, “Best practice reflects this evolution in our understanding and encompasses the continuum of crisis and emergency management: prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery” (p. 8). Thus, it can be seen that crisis management is comprised not just of one area but of four separate parts. Though some aspects of preparedness are covered, of these four areas presented, Central High School seems to focus primarily on response with a small portion of recovery thrown in (Arizona Department of Education, 2009). Prevention, in particular, needs attention if the school is to have a more comprehensive plan. However, that is not the only aspect in which Central High School could improve its plan.

Upon interviewing the school principal at Central High School, Chris Jones, it became apparent that one of the obvious flaws of the Central High School plan was mitigated by the awareness that the team members on the crisis team would need to change from time to time, yet this awareness was unfortunately not reflected in the plan. From the Centers for Mental Health (2008), it is seen that the crisis team members must rotate on a regular basis, ideally, and if for no other reason than that the staff at a school naturally changes from time to time. This is an important aspect of a crisis plan to have in place. However, in the Central High School (2009) response plan, rather than provide for such contingencies, the names of the members of the team are listed as though this is a static body (p. 6). Mitigating this oversight, though, is the fact that Chris Jones, the principal, stated in a personal interview (A. Name, personal communication, December 5, 2013) that the names were merely listed there as a matter of convenience, to keep all the information together in one place in case of an actual emergency. It seems he is well aware that the team members will indeed need to rotate from time to time, though he acknowledged that it would be better to have that procedure outlined in the document. Thus, this is not as great a concern as it at first appeared.

Only by being prepared for a crisis can schools ensure the best actions possible to protect students and help them recover after the fact are taken. Now that society has been made aware of the possible threats to students, the task of creating better and better crisis plans is ongoing. Fortunately, with effort and foresight, schools can help work to make students safer, thus paving the way for a healthier, better-adjusted society for the future.

References

Arizona Department of Education: Arizona Division of Emergency Management. (2009). Central High School Emergency Response Plan. Phoenix, AZ.

Centers for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. (2008). Responding to a Crisis at School. Los Angeles, CA: Author.

Cowan, K. C., & Rossen, E. (2013). Responding to the unthinkable: School crisis response and recovery. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(4), 8-12.

(Table 1 omitted for preview. Available via download)