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Crisis Teams Treat Psychological Scars Left by Random Violence

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On Feb. 24, 1984, a sniper began firing at students on the playground of the 49th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. When his random spree of violence was over, one student was dead, 14 other children and two adults were wounded, and shocked school officials were left to cope with the emotional aftermath of sudden and inexplicable tragedy.

The psychic wounds from the crisis--a residue of deep and complex feelings that experts said could threaten the long-term health of both the school and its inhabitants--led district officials to form an ad hoc team of outside medical personnel to augment its own counseling and psychological services and to develop a plan to provide immediate psychological counseling in future crises.

The playground sniping convinced school-district officials that contingency plans for trauma are no luxury in the modern school environment. Lessons learned from it have led to the development there of five "Psychological First-Aid Teams" prepared to give emotional support services to crisis victims.

"We realized we had some really well-trained people who could handle such problems," said Al Clark, director of student-health services. "By organizing these teams, we can use our resources first, then call on outside agencies as needed."

The teams will be made up of specially trained members from the district's mental-health, medical, logical-assessment, nursing, 4and counseling and guidance services, as well as from its student attendance and adjustment branch.

The core teams will offer training for similar groups at each school in evaluating the needs of individual students and staff members, making recommendations on treatment, and initiating referrals when they are necessary.

"If needed, the core teams will also go to a distressed campus and assist in the implementation of intervention strategies," Mr. Clark said. He expects the teams to be fully staffed and trained by the end of the year.

Those who helped to create the Los Angeles system say the teams can be deployed in a range of crisis situations as a way to reduce immediate stress, avoid long-term medical consequences, and regain stability in the school environment.

And other school districts--spurred by traumatizing experiences as dramatic as a student's murder and as commonplace as the death of a teacher--have moved to make support services more readily available in a crisis.

Houston's Plan

Houston, for example, was the first major school system to institute a districtwide crisis-management plan. There, as in Los Angeles, the impetus was unexpected tragedy.

In the spring of 1983, an 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck jack-knifed on a local highway and ripped into the right side of a city school bus. One 12-year-old girl died in the accident and four other children and the driver were injured.

But when Harriet Arvey, director of support services for the Houston Independent School District, rushed to the hospital to help victims and their families, she was "appalled" to find that many there wondered why she had come. Such counseling services had simply not been offered before, she said.

Today, they are. The districtwide plan Ms. Arvey and others have developed since the bus accident comprehensively maps out the steps school personnel need to take following a crisis.

Like the Los Angeles plan, Houston's includes a specially trained crisis-response team that can be deployed at individual schools in an emergency. But the team most often spends its time training school personnel in crisis management.

Team members teach school officials when and how to offer support and how to identify those who need more intensive counseling from a mental-health professional. They also instruct the officials in making the proper referrals.

Only two or three incidents a year require the core team to send more than one member to a school, Ms. Arvey said, but they are prepared to provide support for incidents ranging from the death of a popular teacher to a natural disaster.

Taking Grief Seriously

For other districts, crisis management continues to depend largely on arrangements made with outside counseling professionals.

Counselors from the Bethesda (Md.) Crisis Center, for example, provided support services last April to students at Gaithersburg High School, where the brutal and highly publicized rape and murder of a fellow student had produced widespread grief and fear. The death of the girl, who was killed off campus on her way home from work, also prompted the school to offer lunchtime sessions on self-defense.

Officials at P.S. 161 in Brooklyn, N.Y., formed a bereavement-counseling group last year after an unusually large number of students lost their parents. The group discussions, based on the concept that sharing and expressing grief can minimize its long-term impact, intensified, officials said, when the school counselor and a paraprofessional leading the group also lost a parent.

In Fairfax County, Va., last month each of the four local community health clinics donated the services of a professional counselor to deal with the wave of grief that swept the Robinson Secondary School after two 15-year-old students described as best friends committed suicide in the same week.

Myra Herbert, coordinator of school social-work services for the county, said she hoped to expand communication between the school system and the health centers to assure the availability of support during future crises.

"Kids tend to be very emotional at this age," Ms. Herbert said. "They need to have their grief understood and taken seriously."

Lessons To Be Learned

"In any crisis, individuals have an opportunity to grow or be traumatized," said Carmen Petzold, a psychologist who helped develop the Houston program and smaller crisis-response programs in seven other Texas school districts. "We try to offer comfort and support so people can grow."

According to Ms. Petzold, lessons that students and other members of a school community can learn after a tragedy include: how to express their own grief without feeling that something is wrong with their reaction, how to support others who share their grief, and how to recognize signs that the current crisis has reawakened an earlier emotional problem.

Other experts note that the primary goal of post-crisis intervention is to help the school regain the equilibrium lost as a consequence of a tragedy.

"We've found that we can reduce the length of time it takes a school to recover from a crisis if we give people enough support at the time it happens," said Marion McCammond, coordinator of school mental-health services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Helping people cope can prevent future problems arising from unresolved feelings."

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