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The Tenets of Care: A Perspective from a School Crisis Responder

Abstract

Crisis response work in our schools is a necessary service as an educational setting must be stable and free from disturbance in order for meaningful learning to take place. Now more than ever, our efforts to ensure that educational environments are fortresses of safety and acceptance have become a paramount concern within American schools. In the heart of Texas, a team of professionals with experience in school leadership, counseling, mental health, safety, and communication have come together to respond when the call comes in after a devastating event or loss of life occurs, confounding the efforts of educators and interrupting the learning environment for students.

They utilize specified tools, resources, and best practices from an arsenal of strategic responses to assist the impacted school district as they mitigate what is understandably a visceral and very personal response to tragedy. The National Organization of Victim Assistance (NOVA) protocols are utilized for debriefing with small groups in most cases as well as the After A Suicide Toolkit for Schools when warranted. Resources from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) for Psychological First Aid and the American School Counseling Association (ASCA) are also used in addition to other supports, chosen based on varying factors that impact each given situation. Often, the collaboration is based not only on evidence but also on experience with crisis calls regarding human losses that range from accidents or terminal illnesses. On extremely rare occasions, the loss of a person may be to a homicide but all too often, the loss is suffered when a student or teacher dies by suicide. The lessons learned from so many crisis interactions with the districts in our region have resulted in stronger partnerships and relationships, knowing that caring for people is the heart of our unified mission in all schools.

School districts in this region and across the state have come to utilize crisis response services as a means to make critical decisions involving their response to media and consult for how to address memorials. Consultation and support is also given to help schools structure the first day back on campus after a fatality, consider the resumption of class schedules and school events, and assist with referrals for affected students and staff. Many lessons have been learned by one school crisis response specialist in particular who leads this effort for seventy-six independent school districts and ten charter schools in this region of Texas.

The time for response starts now

It always starts the same way. The phone lies silently in the dark on his nightstand, suddenly lighting up at 11:34 pm on a random Thursday night. He rolls over and squints to see the message banner, “Please pick up. Something terrible has happened”. His wife looks at the clock and realizes that nothing good happens when his phone alerts after 11:00 pm. Tonight would be no different.

“One of our juniors just died by suicide; self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

He struggles to wake fully and absorb the information, thinking of this student, his family, and the other 846 students and 74 staff in his care at his high school. “How did this happen?”, he stammers. “Where do I even begin?”, he wonders. The texts start flooding in. The questions, the panic. The shock and disbelief. Everyone wants to know. Everyone wants an explanation. The time for response starts now. And the clock is ticking.

The silent and desperate need in schools today is the infrastructure of support to address psychological and mental health needs for a generation of students experiencing trauma, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Scenarios like this are tragically playing out across the nation and with an alarmingly increasing rate. The aftermath of such devastation being center-stage in our classrooms after the loss of a student or a teacher. Academic learning in the school building comes to a screeching halt. “Business as usual” in school operations buckles under a mass of calls and communications, logistics, and decisions weighing on school leaders as they navigate the appropriate crisis response to a tragedy such as this.

Crisis response work in our schools is not a new experience in the world of education. Devastating events in educational institutions have unfortunately become a frequent focus for any given district on any given day. In my time as a Crisis Response Team Leader at Education Service Center Region 12, in Waco Texas, my team and I have answered over 100 crisis calls in school districts over the past seven years with one-third of those calls being in response to death by suicide, be it student or educator.

Crisis Response: Each Case is Different

To date, the goals of our crisis response efforts center around helping the impacted district stabilize the learning environment, set up safe zones on the affected campus (or campuses) for students and staff who are processing initial reactions to the loss, assist the district in constructing and disseminating communications to parents and the community, helping with media response, and helping with identification and connection to local mental health partners for possible referrals in the days and weeks following a devastating event. Losses have ranged from accidents, terminal illness, vehicle crashes, homicide, suicide, and one community-wide explosion. Our responses range from consultation calls, sharing resources, connecting partners, or the “boots on the ground” where we go in and directly help school leaders with their crisis, depending on their level of need.

Each case is different, demanding careful calculation for formulating the most appropriate response while attending the unique needs of the students and families as they work with schools regarding memorials, arrangements, and other considerations that no one should have to make regarding the loss of young life.

It is the one time when the school walls become permeable, realizing that our first and most important goal in education is that we are taking care of people and not just handling information, knowledge, and academia. We are in the business of creating citizens. They will forever remember how we treated them in their trauma and grief during their precious formative years in education.

Because responses to crisis situations in our schools vary so widely, many lessons have been learned to help hone our skills in this critical area of care for educational institutions in the wake of a disaster.

Of course, the first consideration is the width and breadth of impact on any community or region and the impact on the people within it. Should the event give rise to a state-wide or even national scale, our schools face the invading “yield of control” to specialized entities who convene from a state and perhaps even a federal level for disaster response. It can feel very violating when strangers come in and may not be familiar with the lay of the land, existing resources and support, the impacted building(s) in the disaster, the people (staff and students included), or the personality and cultural composition of a school or community. It’s important for Educational Service Centers and regional partners to be a conduit of communication during such trepidatious times and translate the needs of those who find us familiar. This helps ensure that necessary support efforts can proceed in a healthy, collaborative, and positive manner.

Aside from anomalies of this magnitude, the first lesson learned about school crisis response is to approach the wounded with care and respect. We always try very hard to take on the mantra of helpers before anything else, regardless of status, position or appointment, and regardless of the task. We are all servants first. We have learned that in many cases, our leaders like to have the available option to consult about their crisis. It is important to assure them that there is a knowledgeable and non-judgmental ear available to them as a “sounding board”. This can make all the difference in helping them with their decisions when they too are affected by the tragedy or the loss. The pressure upon a school leader who endures a student or staff loss is tremendous. They are making decisions rapidly and hopefully with the best and most factual information. Sometimes leaders do not have the luxury of learning details immediately, making this process even more challenging. We offer our services to them knowing that our intentions are to not infer that their capabilities are undermined or doubted.  Precedent cases and many influencing factors drive problem-solving and decision-making as there is no set formula for the number of counselors to have on-hand, the number of rooms for the affected, nor the number of days before “normal” school business may be resumed. Some campuses are affected for many years after the initial impact day.

We have learned that high school students can act in a very proprietary manner over the loss of a fellow student or educator and tend to polarize for possession and identification with the life lost. This means that in nearly every scenario at the secondary level when a young person is lost (and this can happen when we see the loss of a beloved teacher as well), the proprietary claim happens when there is a propensity for the students to become polarized on a spectrum of “claiming” the life lost and often demanding that others stand somewhere on the spectrum of their association to the deceased. “She was MY best friend (and not yours)”, “I was the last person he texted”, “She doesn’t even know her, why is she crying?”, are common statements we have heard time and again. The equilibrium of the high school ecosystem of relationships is compromised and turned upside down, especially in smaller school settings. We often have to help students and educators alike refrain from the blame-game and from trying to measure the extent of one’s grief or the depth of previous relationships. Sometimes, the life that is lost is that of the star basketball player or a beloved band member. Other times it may be a marginalized student who struggled with healthy relationships and may not be as popular or interconnected. The degree of polarization varies. We see this phenomenon often and it can give rise to a secondary crisis situation for the surviving students if we are not careful to diffuse the situation and help provide a stable and calm environment amidst the aftermath of the loss.

We have learned that losses at the early elementary grade levels (up until about the 4th grade or what could loosely be referred to as “pre-social media” age) are often handled better when parents are given a chance to tell their children about the loss first, as these situations may be the first time that they encounter death. Parental involvement in communicating this message to such young students is very important. We have learned that careful monitoring of the Quiet/Grieving Room at the Middle school level is important, lest you have seventy students gather at once for a large-scale social outpouring of emotion. We know that all too often the classroom of a beloved and lost educator becomes a sacred place. Everything in it is a part of a micro-world that represents stability, care, and acceptance after spending hours, days, weeks, and months together learning and growing. The rhythm of life in that space freezes for the youth who survive and each element in it may become enshrined to the educator they loved and lost. Therefore, the transition to new teaching arrangements and dismissing the personal items of the life lost becomes a carefully planned event to set the stage for the rest of the academic school year. Decisions about changing the learning environment and introducing someone new to assume the role of the lost educator after a tragedy are delicate and very, very important for all grade levels.

We have also learned that call-out or instant phone, text, and email messaging systems often are used to alert parents when there is an absence from school (i.e., a dental appointment, an off-campus event, or other reason to be absent from class). What happens when the reason for the absence call is that the student passed away? Our team helps remind the attendance staff to respectfully remove the name of the student from the roster of actively enrolled children to ensure that a robo-call doesn’t go home alerting the impacted parents’ home when the reason that their child is absent that day is that they are no longer living. Hundreds of incidents over the past seven years have prepared our team to help mitigate these scenarios, each one unique, each one different. Each decision is carefully considered and can be pivotal in assisting recovery.

Response Team Work in an Education Service Center

The work in our education service center system goes beyond the specified team who prep and engage the district when a tragedy strikes. Our directors and administrators will alert education specialists who travel to service districts when a sensitive situation arises so that a newcomer or guest to the campus on the day of impact is aware of the needs of teachers and students who may need flexibility in their work tasks in light of recent events.

Many have asked why someone would want to engage in this work voluntarily and wear the soot from the fire on our clothes as we sometimes feel that we do. The truth is that the road to becoming a school crisis responder is not a short or easy one. My history with this work started mid-way through my career when I joined our Regional Crisis Response Team, serving as a member and witnessing the power of a careful and collaborative team approach when supporting schools after terrible things happened. Much of my perspective and training compounds with my own school crisis experience after spending the eve of my senior prom in an emergency room following the loss of a very close friend to a drunk driving accident at 17 years of age. The chaos, the headlights shining into the room when the sheriff came in to talk to us, how we scrambled to leave the party to be by the side of his family and how sickening it felt to hear the news while standing in the middle of the ER in a ball gown. Things that never leave you. I can recall how we all felt the desperate need to be together, to huddle amid hugs and tears, to stamp recent times of carefree fun and laughter into cemented memories that would last for the rest of our lives. Even some forty years later, dear friends from my childhood can recall those moments with astonishing clarity and reverence, knowing that such events became a part of our lives forever. And they happened while we were in school. Knowing this makes the work I do today even more critical.

Later in life, I would witness the magnitude of a full-scale community disaster with the explosion of a fertilizer plant in the tiny town of West, Texas (my husband’s hometown and that of our own home of over twenty years) on April 17, 2013, and witness as well as feel the devastating impact it had on our school and our community. Three of the four school campuses in the West Independent School District were immediately lost, displacing some 800 students and hundreds of staff, many of whom were also instantly homeless.

The Region and state rallied in record time to respond and to help ready building facilities some 15 miles away at nearby Connally Independent School District, a “lifeboat” for West ISD at a time when keeping children and educators together proved to be one of the most helpful responses not only for the school but the entire community as they started their painstaking ascent to recovery. There will never be a way to repay such a heroic debt to a district that came to the aid of our wounded little town.

We worked with many partners for the psychological safety and well-being of our kids as they dealt with the trauma of losing their homes, their school, their neighbors or loved ones (for some), and in many cases dealt with injuries of their own as they attended funeral after funeral in the short time after the blast. Their lives will never be the same and educators will have to attend their needs at the smell of smoke, the sight of fire, the sound of sirens and the flashing hint of panic recalled in a single moment. Of course, they will overcome, but they will always remember.

I used to half-jokingly say to therapists and fellow counselors, “Hurt kids don’t care about fractions. Anxious kids don’t conjugate verbs and children living in constant despair are not interested in the periodic table”, a somewhat crass reference to the fact that unless we attend to the grief and trauma needs of our kids; facts, figures, and the like become moot extraneous bits of useless information to be dismissed until safety and security (physical and psychological), love and belonging needs are completely and fully realized and met.

Our task is not an easy one by any means. Texas has 5.4 million students. That’s 5.4 million lives who are not to only be regarded as statistics briefly occupying seats in our school buildings, but future mothers and fathers, future workers and builders, citizens who will generationally impact those to come behind them. They deserve our best efforts and care, especially when they are in their time of need.

Meeting the need for databases and networks

ESC Region 12 is a partner with the Texas Education Agency and are active partners in building the scaffold of support necessary to help our children grow into citizens of tomorrow. We know that one barrier to our mission of healthy and well children is access to mental health professionals and services. Through unprecedented and sweeping new legislation in our state, we are starting to ensure that our schools have more opportunities to bridge this road to access, making it more possible to link students and families to these critical resources in our cities and towns. Through important bills like SB 11 (dubbed the “school safety bill”) and HB 18 (dubbed the “mental health bill”), our schools are called upon to be more cognizant of the impact of mental health on student safety (and academic performance) in regard to suicide prevention and school violence prevention. Elements in these bills include stronger Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs) with more stringent reporting expectations on threat assessment, expectations for training on grief-informed and trauma-informed care for students, access to support regarding mental health and much more.

Texas Regional Education Service Centers are building databases and networks with the expectation that they are to be readily accessed and shared widely in an effort to meet this overwhelming need. One of our recent forms of legislation (HB 19) mandates that a Local Mental Health Authority (LMHA) partner be housed within our regional facility to help with the outreach and connection of mental health providers to our schools as well as help train educators on important skills and strategies for identifying youth who may be in crisis. This is an exciting opportunity because we are realizing the power of this partnership at a time when it is needed most.

Regional Counselor Specialists

ESC Region 12, one of twenty Education Service Centers in the state, also coordinates an organic network of Regional Counselor Specialists who connect regularly to share resources and consider new supports and tools to serve school counselors as they take on the monumental task of ensuring not only academic success for their campuses but the herculean task of mitigating the social-emotional needs of the children in their care.

Through group apps, monthly online meetings, a team drive for resources, and an annual statewide conference, this amazing team canvases the state in a peer-lead effort to help all Texas schools. On one occasion, a sister ESC Region 7 (Kilgore, Tx) representative had a family in one of her districts who learned that one of their children was battling a terminal illness and would have to relocate to a large hospital in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, some 160 miles away. The family contemplated pulling their other two children from the school to be with the family and discontinue their education during the time spent with the ill child in the hospital in Dallas. It’s doubtful that there would have been any known alternative to this, had a fellow Regional Counselor Specialist from ESC 11  in Fort Worth not learned about the situation and immediately offered to contact the hospital and offer educational services to the family through the district and home Regional partner so that instructional arrangements for their children could continue amid such strenuous and difficult circumstances. The power of this collaboration, partnership, and outreach cannot be overstated. Victories like this wouldn’t be possible if we were not synergistically working together toward a common goal for all children to receive the education they deserve. This scaffold of care helps ensure that this goal is met, even if it’s one family at a time.

Crisis response demands we draw strength from each other

We are finding that critical moments of care are not only relegated to the aftermath of losses, though they tend to stand out the most for crisis response and recovery. New threats are on the horizon for our children as they face digital predatory advances, the devastation of human trafficking, or the unthinkable tragedy of school violence when some of them may be struggling to find food, clothing, and safety. All the while, the expectation of academic mastery looms over them. Crisis response could be considered something that many of our schools face daily and on many different levels before learning ever takes place in the school building.

Our schools have become the hub of hope for children who experience these challenges, relying on educators who assume the role of surrogates inasmuch as offering comfort, encouragement, and inspiration if nothing else. They are called upon to educate children when they may be in a state of their own survival. It is incumbent upon us to guide them and enable their ability to identify danger as well as learn the importance of civil behaviors such as kindness and empathy. Crisis events demand that educators draw strength from one another in a profession that is fading into a destitute landscape of ambivalence in our society.

A school crisis responder must understand this and the dynamic of the school environment when navigating the course to recovery for hundreds of children and adults when normalcy is compromised by an unsolicited event at an unwelcome time. If our goal is for students to realize their growth and our current measure of success is their achievement, it stands to reason that our work must be to clear a pathway for them to become strong and healthy people, with our benchmark for success set many years after they leave our hands.

It’s 12:02 am and the phone by my bedside lights up. “We lost one of our kids. Please advise”.

I’ll exhale and rouse quietly without waking the house. I’ll start to inform the team and set in motion the chain of events to determine the level of need, the possible impact, the resources to gather, the time and location to start the process of response and recovery.

Coffee. Yes, coffee. I’ll need that, too. After all, there is much to be done and our biggest enemy in the whole process right now…. is the clock.

Jenipher Janek, M.Ed., LPC, Education Specialist III/Coordinator, Education Service Center Region 12. She can be reached by phone at 254-297-1124 and by email at jjanek@esc12.net

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