Ensuring the Success of Your School Crisis Plan

Published August 1, 2000

The Heartland Institute is pleased to welcome as a regular School Reform News columnist Robert Macy, director of community services for the Trauma Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Macy is working with the United Nations/UNICEF and the Turkish Ministry of National Education to design, implement, and manage a school-based, traumatic stress intervention program for 75,000 children left homeless by recent earthquakes. Additionally, he is the primary content provider for PLANet, school crisis planning and management software. He can be reached at [email protected] or 800/634-2016.

Although the Littleton, Colorado tragedy produced a high number of fatalities and was scrutinized nationally, such school-related incidents, fortunately, do not occur often.

But other serious incidents occur much more frequently, and are much more costly to schools. These include sexual assault and rape, suicide attempts and completions, drug addiction and overdose, disruptive behavior, and threats of violence in the classroom.

Each of these requires specific response protocols, which will be most successful if they are delivered in an organized, expert-developed critical response plan (CRP) that can be accessed by all decision makers instantaneously.

A well-developed and appropriately used CRP is a critical tool. Such a plan can decrease fatalities as well as overall violence, aggression, and threatening situations in the school environment. Acquiring and consistently using a CRP can decrease overall student support services expenditures, reduce legal and physical liabilities that the school may normally face post-incident, and reduce the overall time and expenses demanded of support staff to appropriately respond to and “clean up” critical incidents. A well-designed CRP also can significantly reduce the time away from teaching and learning that usually occurs post-incident for students and faculty.

Although many schools have crisis plans, most were not developed with the input of experts, and most are not based on current research and crisis response protocols. The following checklist will help administrators ensure the success of their CRPs.

1. Employ a team approach when building the CRP. The CRP development team must include internal and external stakeholders.

Internal stakeholders

School district administrators
School district legal and public relations staff
All non-classroom based school staff
Homeroom teachers

External stakeholders

Local police
Local district attorney’s office
Local conflict negotiation consultants
State law enforcement (state police)
Local fire department
Local and state bomb squad
Local and state behavioral health vendors
Local hospital emergency rooms
Local clergy
State chapter representing FEMA
Local HAZMAT teams
Local ADL chapter

2. Make sure the CRP is based on solid, high-fidelity, current research with respect to:

Alternative policing methods for school critical incident response

Lockdown, barricade, and alternative communication methods in the event of on-campus threats of violence

Behavioral health response protocols for handling:

Increased aggression and hostility in the classroom
Suicide completions and attempts
Sudden loss of human life and grief dynamics
Contagion containment protocols for acts of violence to self and others
Critical incident stress

3. Make sure the CRP satisfies, at a minimum, the following requirements:

Standardized response protocols for specific critical incidents that address pre-incident planning and prevention, acute incident triage protocols, and post-incident intervention and long-term follow up

Response protocols that guide the response team during the critical incident with step-by-step, incident-specific tasks

Response protocols covering at least the 20-30 primary critical incidents that could occur in your school

Ability to access the plan from off-site locations

Ability to import all faculty and student census data into the CRP

Ability to easily and accurately update the CRP and broadcast those updates at the school and district level

Ability to easily and accurately store and update resource organizations that are on standby status to assist the school in the event of a critical incident

Ability to generate parent notification letters to describe the nature of the incident and the school’s organized response

The CRP must be activated and managed by a school-based response team, with basic training in Critical Incident Stress Management; the team management follows the basic operational tenets of the Incident Command System before, during, and after an incident

The CRP must have specified roles and functions assigned to each team member

The CRP must have team members assigned to carry out each step-by-step incident-specific task

The CRP must be tested by engaging in school-wide critical incident drills.