Special Education

Responding To Critical Incidents

Responding to critical incidents: a resource guide for schools

Tragic events, such as the sudden death or suicide of a member of a school community, can result in intense feelings of anxiety, guilt or anger in students and staff. Schools must make plans in advance for interventions which can be activated in order to reduce the negative impact of critical incidents on the school community.

Helping students and staff deal with their grief reactions will reduce the likelihood that one critical incident will lead to further unfortunate events. Some members of the school community may experience fear, preoccupation with death or suicidal thoughts in response to the death of a person in the school community. Some students react with absenteeism or inappropriate, acting out behaviour. A pre-planned protocol for supporting students and staff can be effective in reducing psychological, physical and social difficulties. The main purpose in providing support to staff and students is to empower them and their families to help themselves and to enhance their skills for future critical incidents in their lives.

Factors that make an event a critical incident

Schools and school districts often deal with sudden, unexpected incidents which have the potential to adversely affect the students, staff and community. Sudden deaths or serious injuries due to accidents, illnesses, violence or abuse can have a significant affect on a school population. Suicide by a member of the school community can have a devastating effect on a school. Other traumatic events such as fires, flooding or other threats to the school or community can have an impact on staff and students. Any incident which has a negative impact on the school and interrupts the normal flow of daily events can be considered a critical incident.

Critical incidents can create strong emotional responses in both students and staff. Symptoms of the impact may vary with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. In this emotion-charged climate following a critical incident, the existence of well-established plans for dealing with the situation can reduce confusion and ensure that decisions are reasoned and thorough.

  • Established plans which outline guidelines for providing support can speed up responses when timing is critical.
  • Schools must take steps to ensure that one critical incident does not lead to further crisis reactions in the school community or create harmful conflict among school personnel who are trying to make decisions under stress.
  • The district and school are subject to close scrutiny based on their response to a crisis. Children and their families should be reassured by the school's actions that the incident is being competently managed.

The importance of a planned response

When a critical incident occurs, there is little time for reflective and inclusive decision making. Just as schools have plans for fire drills and earthquake procedures, schools should also develop generic plans for responding to other types of crisis events. Emergency procedures need to be practised by staff and students, just as fire drills are practised, to ensure that school staffs are ready to deal effectively with a critical incident.

Before a crisis situation occurs

Planning should include readiness to deal with emergencies and a plan for responding to the traumatic after effects of a critical incident. Planning should include:

  • identification of members of Critical Incidents Teams at school and district levels,
  • protocol for the effective management of emergency situations,
  • development of district and school plans to handle the traumatic after effects of a crisis,
  • provision of training for handling both emergencies and responses to critical incidents, and
  • scheduled reviews of critical incidents plans as needed.

Critical incidents affecting a school community include not only those crises that occur during the school day and on school property. Incidents that occur on school property after hours or away from school property, such as on a field trip or at a sporting event, may also require immediate response from school authorities. All schools should have plans in place for handling emergency situations as they are happening.

Emergency planning and critical incident response protocols should be designed to deal with many different types of crisis situations, for example:

  • Weapon
  • Serious injury, assault or murder
  • Intruder - during or after hours
  • Kidnapping or hostage taking
  • Suicide or sudden death
  • Acute illness emergency
  • Bus or other vehicle accident
  • Child abuse in the school
  • Bomb threat
  • Chemical spill
  • Natural disaster (utility failure, flood, tornado, earthquake)

Safety of the students and staff should be the number one consideration in developing emergency procedures. Other key issues to be considered in the planning include:

  • how to assess the severity of the situation,
  • the method to be used to call for assistance,
  • procedures for defusing, controlling the crisis and accessing further help,
  • the role of experts and when to hand over the incident to outside experts (police, mental health professionals, etc.), and
  • debriefing by the Critical Incidence Response Team to decide what further action to take and whether response plans should be mobilized.

After a critical incidentside1.gif (12957 bytes)

Once the safety of the staff and students is assured, the protocol for responding after a critical incident can take effect, if needed.

District officials should be notified as soon as possible when a critical incident has occurred anywhere in the district. District resources should be easily activated to assist schools, if requested. The district level crisis team should ensure that all resources to support a school are mobilized and additional support from other sources such as health or social workers is obtained for the school if needed. School level crisis teams should be freed from their regular roles and responsibilities temporarily so that they can carry out the plans and respond quickly and efficiently to the needs of students and staff.

Both school and district critical incidence response teams should monitor the situation carefully and continue to provide assistance to students and staff. The effects of some tragic events have long lasting results for some members of the school community. Both students and staff who are affected may need help finding appropriate support services for the long term.

It is essential to review the handling of a critical incident and follow up with recommendations for improvements to the plan. With each use of a critical incident protocol, the people involved discover ways to refine and improve the plan.

The nature of a critical incident may create an occasion in which the school community comes face to face with serious social issues, such as spousal abuse, racism, or discrimination based on sexual orientation. Although the topics related to the incident may be sensitive in the community, it is important for the school to honestly validate the issue's connection to the incident as it helps the school community to deal with the critical incident. The follow up plans may call for the planning of awareness training, around celebrating diversity or eliminating harassment, in the school or district.

Setting up response teams

xperience in school districts has shown there is a need for critical incident response teams at two levels: district and school. In some cases school districts and community resources, such as mental health services, have collaborated on the establishment of a community level crisis team. This district level organization can assist schools in handling serious critical incidents as needed. The School Team is intended to assist the school administration in managing the response to a critical incident at the school level.

The district critical incident response team

The District Team is often led by the superintendent or assistant superintendent. Since the person responsible for this team may need to represent the Board of School Trustees and make quick, difficult decisions on behalf of the Board, it is important that it be someone with the necessary authority. Specialized school district personnel as well as community professionals and people representing community services may also play key roles on the District Team.

Membership of a District Team often includes:

  • Superintendent or Assistant Superintendent
  • Director of Special Programs or Special Education Services
  • School psychologist or person responsible for supervising counselling
  • Mental health personnel, Ministry for Children and Families
  • District staff as needed (Aboriginal Education Coordinator, Alternate Program Coordinator, etc.)
  • Other community-based professionals as needed.

One of the initial responsibilities of the District Critical Incident Response Team is to develop a protocol for the district. Once the plans are in place, the team's role is to ensure that all members are familiar with the protocol and clear about their duties should there be a need to act.

The District Team can provide several different types of support to the schools, for example:

  • assisting in developing school level teams and reviewing school-based plans,
  • supporting training for school level teams,
  • collaborating with the principal and school critical incident team to determine whether other district or community agency help is required,
  • providing links to established community agencies such as mental health services, victim services, police, or community-based critical incident teams,
  • managing media inquiries and handling communication issues with the community at large,
  • contacting the other schools in the district that might have students or
  • staff that could be affected by the critical incident,
  • developing a contact list of people and agencies which is current and accessible to all schools in an emergency,
  • working out of the school which has experienced a critical incident, if needed, and/or
  • arranging for stress debriefing for staff in the school.

Following a critical incident, the District Team can assist the School Team in reviewing and improving the school plan. They can communicate information about how the protocol operated to other schools in the district thereby providing links between schools and ensuring that all school teams in the district benefit from what has been learned by the school that has applied its protocol.

The school critical incident response team

Each school should have its own team to handle critical incident responses. Members of the team should be chosen based on their leadership roles in the school or their personal qualities which would make them an asset in a crisis situation. These individuals must be willing and able to assist the school administration in carrying out the critical incident plan. Membership of a school critical incident response team may include the following:

  • Principal,
  • Counsellors,
  • Department heads or other key teacher leaders, and
  • Other staff (teacher Assistant, child care worker, multicultural worker, clerical staff, etc.)

Like the District Team, the first task of the School Team should be to develop the school plan or protocol. In most cases this will be based on procedures set at the district level. The District Team may provide a framework for the schools to use, or schools may use this document to begin their planning. It is important that training be provided to the School Team so that each person is familiar with the entire plan, confident in what their role is, and has developed the skills necessary to carry out the plan.

Once the plan is developed, a copy should be submitted to the District Team at theside2.gif (10140 bytes) beginning of each school year. It is important that this plan include a list of the names, roles and after hours contact telephone numbers of all School Team members. Clear communication is essential so that the teams can be mobilized quickly in the event of an incident.

At the school level, two copies of the plan should be distributed to each staff member: one to be kept at home and the other at school. School staffs should also have an opportunity to discuss the plan with the School Team at a staff meeting or in-service session. Topics might include procedural matters and the dynamics of grief and trauma reactions. School counsellors will often be a source of expertise in carrying out the training. Materials that might be used for training sessions are included in the appendices of this resource guide.

A printed handbook or pamphlet on the school's critical incident response protocol should be available to each staff member and parent. Parents should be informed about the plan and translated materials should be available when appropriate and feasible. Examination of existing critical incident or sudden death protocol resources from across British Columbia and other locations shows that they contain some common features:

  • Introductory material describing the importance of effective critical incident response procedures and planning.
  • Clear, easy to follow steps in an action plan for the principal and team to use as a guide for action following a critical incident.
  • Delineation of the roles and responsibilities for individuals in the school community in carrying out the plan.
  • Strategies for providing counselling for both students and staff.
  • Plans for identifying individuals at risk after a crisis.
  • Alternative procedures for off site programs, if needed.
  • Support materials such as sample formats for class meetings, staff meetings, communications with parents, information about grief and stress reactions, and a list of individuals and agencies with contact phone numbers so the School Team can readily obtain assistance in a hurry.

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