How to Decrease Crisis Contagion

Published December 1, 2000

Many crises or critical incidents within a school or school district cause normal routines to be disrupted. This disruption can include a sense that everything is “out of control,” or that no one is in charge.

During and after an event, panic and anxiety can spread quickly, becoming a form of psychological contagion. Group mood and behavior will affect individuals; individuals, in turn, can have a significant impact on a group’s perception and behavior. This is especially true for middle and high school students, who carefully monitor peer relationships and highly regard acceptance into the larger peer group.

Critical incidents within the school, especially incidents involving sudden fatalities and severe violence, normally cause considerable disruptions that lead to intense mood and behavior changes among the student body. However normal, it can be frightening to observe and difficult to manage.

Although it is impossible to predict when or where critical incidents will occur, your school can take immediate steps to manage the crisis contagion.

Pre-incident: Preparation

  • Although normally unintentional, media reports or unsubstantiated rumors can cause crisis contagion to increase significantly. As highlighted in the November article (see “Dealing with the Media Before, During, and After a Critical Incident,” School Reform News, November 2000), a public information officer (PIO) designated by the central administration should handle all media or public inquiries. This assignment should be made prior to any critical incident so staff and parents can be assured media inquires will be handled professionally.
  • Your school should have in place a well-organized and well-trained critical incident response team that can implement best-practice, standard protocols to respond to specific critical incidents. The existence and function of this team should be well known to staff and students so the entire school knows and understands there is a system in place to manage critical emergencies.
  • School nurses, resource officers, and the public health staff should be familiar with the Centers for Disease Control’s contagion containment protocols, especially with respect to suicide attempts, suicide completions, and other violent events affecting middle and high school students.

During and After the Incident: Containment

  • Rumors are one of the most damaging mechanisms that causes crisis contagion to increase rapidly. So rumor control is extremely important to implement during any major crisis. The PIO, the principal, and your school’s critical incident response team may handle rumor control. Homeroom teachers also play an important role in collaborating with team members. The idea is to create a school culture during crises where concrete information is gathered, verified, and valued, and where other types of unverified information is labeled as a rumor and therefore inaccurate and potentially destructive. As well, the school must establish a culture of privacy and respect for individuals affected by the incident.
  • Incident information that has been verified, and which is not required to be held confidential, must be relayed to students and faculty as quickly as possible. This information would include what has happened, whether there is still ongoing danger, and what is being done to mitigate further risk. Specifics of how and what happened (specific incident details, suicide methodology) should not be reported.
  • Witnessing violence or the aftermath of violence is a known contagion factor. It is important that witnesses be identified early and, with respect to the violence aftermath, that the number of witnesses be limited by blocking access to the crisis sites. If the critical incident occurs on school premises, the physical area where the incident occurred should be cordoned off so that students and staff are not allowed to witness the scene.
  • If the critical incident occurred on school premises, the physical area where the incident occurred should be cleaned and repaired by a professional service company–not by school staff.
  • Any survivors of the incident, including eyewitnesses, should be interviewed by professionals and allowed an opportunity to defuse, debrief, or engage in counseling sessions prior to re-entry into school.

If your school’s culture values respect and privacy, and if your school has a well-organized response team, many of the contagion variables–including panic, fear, hatred, and the sense that everything is out of control–will be contained before, during, and afer any critical incident.

Robert Macy is director of community services for the Trauma Center in Boston. He has 20 years’ experience in clinical interventions and academic research in behavioral health, crisis intervention, and traumatic incident management. He can be reached at [email protected] or 800/634-2016.