Aftermath: 'I Would Panic, but I'd Stick to My Plan'
Last week's schoolyard killing spree in Stockton, Calif., dramatically demonstrates the need for school officials to develop plans for emergency services, say mental-health experts who have helped schools cope with similar crises.
Though the possibility of having to deal with a crazed gunman is remote, they say, a variety of more common tragedies, such as the death of a popular teacher or a school-bus accident, require that schools have procedures in place for handling the inevitable psychological aftermath of a traumatic situation.
Such plans, the experts advise, should include knowing which community and district mental-health professionals to call during an emergency, and establishing a procedure by which children would be released to their parents or guardians after calm is restored.
"You shouldn't try to pretend that nothing is ever going to happen,'' said John A. Reinhardt, the director of psychological services for the Concord, N.H., school system. "It happens sooner or later in every school system, one way or the other."
Mr. Reinhardt oversaw his district's response to the Challenger disaster in 1986, when a teacher from the system--Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first "Teacher in Space"--was killed along with six other crew members in the explosion of the space shuttle shortly after lift-off.
School officials, mental-health professionals say, should be prepared for the worst.
In Stockton, said John Klose, a spokesman for the district, 100 counselors, psychologists, and school nurses offered their services to the Cleveland Elementary School to aid students grieving for their five dead classmates. The professional help was sent, he said, from surrounding school districts.
The school opened a counseling center for parents in a nearby church, and initiated a 24-hour hotline to take calls from families dealing with the tragedy's effects. Because more than two-thirds of the school's population is Asian, interpreters fluent in several languages joined the counseling staff.
"We are prepared to carrry on grief-counseling as long as necessary," Mr.Klose said.
Such a long-term view, say professionals, is crucial. They note that many of the psychological symptoms associated with trauma may not appear--or disappear--for weeks or months after the incident.
According to Robert S. Pynoos, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, such symptoms include nightmares, startled reactions to loud noises, the inability to concentrate in school, guilt about not helping fellow classmates, and fears about the incident's recurrence.
Young children, he said, may try to re-enact the frightful experience while they play, while older children and teenagers may adopt more risky behaviors. They may also try to avoid the specific location in a school where the incident occurred, Dr. Pynoos said.
Although little can be done to prevent the type of violence that occurred in Stockton, mental-health experts say that schools that adopt plans for emergency services will be more successful in convincing traumatized students that the school is a safe and caring place.
According to school officials and mental-health experts who handled similar shooting incidents in Winnetka, Ill., and Los Angeles, it is critical that schools take several4steps before--and during--an emergency situation:
Determine what mental-health resources will be available.
Train all school personnel in grief counseling.
Establish a procedure for releasing children when calm has been restored.
Appoint one person as the school's liaison with the media and other officials.
Keep the school open for information and counseling the day of the incident and for several days thereafter. Students and their parents can be told the facts about the incident in a larger group, but they should have the chance to express their feelings and retell their experiences in a small-group setting.
Offer counseling services for weeks and months after the event.
School officials who have already developed such plans say that they feel confident that they could handle a crisis.
During an emergency, said Lynda Lewis, principal of Stanton College Preparatory School in Jacksonville, Fla., who has helped develop emergency plans for Duval County schools since 1981, "I would be upset, I would panic, but I would follow my plan."