Handling a Crisis at School

13 Jan

Bad news in schools. Happens. What does the school leadership do? How are they supposed to handle the crisis? Does it depend upon the nature of the crisis? Naturally yes, but are there standard procedures that can be put in place to help the leader when the need arises. Certainly. And this must be done. Or the crisis can only become worse. 


Just this week, the father of my son’s classmate (best friend actually) passed away. He died in a train accident. All the children are in their early teens. Does the school have a responsibility to do anything in this case? Are the other children in their care in need of support? Last year, in the same school, a few children beat up a boy and fractured his arm. This is a large school, incidents like this do occur, frequently. Does the school call this a crisis? Do they deal with this as an incident? A disciplinary issue? If it recurs, then? What if such behaviour escalates – a child throws another off a parapet? Is that a crisis? 


The shooting incidents in schools in America are indeed a crisis. As are the instances of violence in schools in India, whether perpetrated by teachers or students. Crisis could be a medical emergency, such as with the Bird Flu epidemic where certain classes or entire schools had to be shut down. Then of course there are those crisis that we bring upon ourselves by bad maintenence of equipment – many electricity junctions are fire hazards. Or buses killing children. Many such instances across schools and colleges. We do reel from crisis to crisis, survive by firefighting, create angst and move on – and in the process we lose much. We lose our faith in systems, because we have none. 

Should we not? 

Crises come in various shapes and forms, from earthquakes, to fires to incidents inside and outside the schools. A dharna outside a school is as much a risk to children coming and going as is a child missing a school bus. These are everyday risks that must have standardised operating procedures. Elite schools do conduct risk assessments, and often the others too have evolved processes. But these need to be codified. Everybody must clearly know their role and responsibility in a crises, so that anxiety is minimised and all the essential things get done. We have seen city wide exercises in responses to earthquakes, and these exercises received much criticism – they were disorderly, badly organised and did not establish any protocols as they should. Schools may not even have fire alarms, let alone weekly tests and monthly fire drills. 


Nor are communication protocols in place. Crises are rare, but it would only make things worse if parents and helpers could not contact each other. Or worse, received the wrong messages. Even worse would be falling prey to rumours and speculation. In any crisis, as in war, the key is planning and communication. 


There can be nothing worse for a parent than to not be sure that their child is safe. And nothing more callous than for schools to ignore the need to plan for the parents and the community. You would not want to be in a postion where everybody is calling all the numbers they have, and not getting a clear response anywhere. 


A few things that all school leaders must put in place as part of their responsibility. 


  1. Run a risk audit, even if you do it yourself, with responsible staff. Figure out where the school is vulnerable and plan to rectify those issues
  2. Plan for severe outages of water, electricity, telephones – if your school is used to these luxuries and depends on them
  3. Plan exit routes and practice a safety drill at least once a month. Yes, it is hard work, but will save lives and tension on the day it is needed. 
  4. Allocate responsibilities in case of a crisis to staff and parents, ensure that there is back up. Draw up scenarios and plan for safety. 
  5. Have a communication plan ready. And have a general agreement (if a policy feels to formal) on the tone of the communication. If a teacher calls up parents in a crisis and speaks in a panicked voice, parents will also get agitated and may react inappropriately. 
  6. Ensure all contact lists are updated regularly. And details such as blood group, allergies are recorded in a place where they can be easily accessed. 
  7. Ensure that the school has access to counsellors and supportive professions to deal with the distress of a crisis. 
  8. Ensure good flow of information to the school authorities to try to pre-empt the problem, if possible. 
  9. Ensure that the follow up plan for after the crisis is in place. 
  10. Ensure that adequate training is given for critical tasks to ensure smooth execution.

Use Common Sense – ensure that for each scenario the the basic questions are answered: Who is doing what, when and where are they supposed to be doing their allocated task and how they do it – all of these need to be in the plan. Verify, Collate, Plan, Liase, Support, Contact, Review – build all of these into the process. Above all, be considerate and human in interactions. 

There is much more to be said about planning for smooth management of emergencies, and those who seek help only have to ask. Do have a plan in place, for a problem is not a problem when there is a (good) plan. Then it becomes an understood task, easily done.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on December 18, 2012 and is linked here: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/handling-a-crisis-at-school 


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