Responding to the unthinkable: School crisis response and recovery

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Prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery provide a road map when considering — as we all must — the unthinkable on our doorstep.


It’s not if but when.

A string of high-profile traumatic events spanning nearly 20 years has proven unequivocally that school crisis response is not a choice; it is inevitable. Although most schools won’t experience a tragedy as unthinkable and horrific as Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., did one year ago this month, every school will face crises of varying magnitude. The real choice schools have is how prepared they will be to respond in their moment of crisis and in the immediate days and weeks that follow, and then to the myriad factors that will determine their long-term recovery.

Responding to crises and improving school safety are critical to the overall mission of learning at school. Considering these efforts as a cornerstone to school planning, much like planning an academic curriculum, will position schools and districts for effective responses to crises of varying magnitudes.

Educators, emergency management experts, mental health professionals, and state and federal governments have made considerable progress in recent years defining best practices in crisis response. Historically, crisis preparedness and management focused primarily on events affecting the physical school structure — fire and dangerous weather, for example. Orderly evacuations and seeking shelter in hallways,bathrooms, and gymnasiums constituted the bulk of planning. In the 1990s, as a series of mass shootings at schools grabbed national attention — Paducah, Ky., Pearl, Miss., Springfield, Ore., and Columbine, Colo. — this focus expanded to include acts of violence.

No longer a serious security issue only at urban schools, small schools in rural communities and large affluent suburban schools faced the potential for gun violence on campus. Still, the focus remained primarily on physical security and safety, ushering in a rapid increase of metal detectors and surveillance cameras in schools across the country, along with a passing glance at the possible role of bullying in triggering such student-initiated violence.

Sept. 11, 2001, shifted the school crisis landscape once again, this time bringing the realization that large-scale, high-profile events can ripple across the country and require schools thousands of miles away to respond to the traumatic reactions of students, staff, and families. This understanding, combined with more than a decade of sustained war, increasingly destructive weather patterns, and continued incidents of mass violence and terrorism, have brought the possibility of experiencing the unthinkable to our doorstep.

Reaction to shootings in Newtown 

Whether through acts of mass terrorism, destructive natural disasters, or isolated school shootings, high-profile events bring a renewed recognition that while schools as a whole are incredibly safe places, the unthinkable will happen somewhere at some point. The Newtown shootings hit particularly close to home for our organization, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), not only because of the heartbreaking deaths of 20 1st graders but because one of our members, Mary Sherlach, was killed in those first moments. Just as every parent felt the unimaginable pain of those families, every school psychologist in the country could see himself or herself in Sherlach’s place, in that meeting with her principal, running into the hallway to stop an intruder. Tens of thousands of educators felt intense empathy and vulnerability. As one school psychologist said in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, despite living thousands of miles away, “As a school psychologist working at the same elementary school my own child attends, I was personally stunned by the tragedy. Any school community is our community, and we grieve the personal loss experienced by Newtown. As school leaders, we train for crises we hope never happen.” Another said, “It’s so difficult to find the words to express my myriad of feelings regarding the senseless tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is scary and sad to think that this violence could happen to any elementary school.”

These kinds of proximal relationships with a crisis contribute to its ripple effect and can be a factor in any crisis. It is why mental health and crisis supports should be made available to any student and staff who want support in the aftermath of a traumatic event or tragic loss. You don’t have to have been in the room, or be a close friend or loved one, or even in the same city or state to be affected. It also explains why in the days after the Newtown shootings that schools nationwide enacted their own crisis response by circulating materials to teachers and parents, making
mental health staff available, placing armed guards at entryways, and renewing their commitment to crisis planning.

Physical and psychological safety 

The Newtown tragedy drew new and meaningful attention to mental health and the important role of school-based mental health professionals in student wellness, school safety, and crisis recovery in a way that more than a decade of research and advocacy had failed to do. For the first time, improving access to mental health services in school as well as the community is a centerpiece of school safety proposals at the federal level. These proposals emphasize that early identification and interventions for mental health concerns can be a preventive measure and that mental health services in schools can play a critical role in immediate response and recovery in the event of a crisis.

Indeed, the mental health implications of crisis exposure have emerged as a critical and challenging facet of school safety and crisis response, expanding our focus to encompass both psychological and physical safety, as well as prevention and recovery. We have come to understand that the potential psychological reactions associated with experiencing a crisis can be more widespread and complex for schools to identify and address than physical harm because of the many types of and interactions between risk factors for each individual affected. While some students and staff may experience more apparent and sudden mental health problems, such as difficulties concentrating, aggression, or isolation and withdrawal, others may experience more covert difficulties such as anxiety, fear, guilt, or depression. The consequences of crisis exposure can be long-lasting and far-reaching for some depending on the circumstances. A member of NASP’s National Emergency Assistance Team, Frank Zenere, who led a response to the shootings at Red Lake High School in Red Lake, Minn., in 2005 noted some of the severe effects in the weeks and months following the tragedy. “Long after the national media had left the scene of the school community, a series of negative cascading events continued to impact survivors. For example, the superintendent took a three-week leave of absence as a result of emotional distress; the school’s principal suffered a heart attack one month after the tragedy; there was an increase in depression among students and staff; student suicides and attempts increased; a dozen members of the faculty developed PTSD and permanently resigned; and when classes resumed three weeks after the tragedy, only 30% of the students returned for the remainder of the school year.” (The assailant, a former student, killed two people off campus before driving to the high school and killing eight people, including himself.)

The articles in this issue provide more depth into the potentially significant effects of crises on learning and mental health. Crisis response efforts should be driven by two overarching considerations: how schools can identify struggling students and staff before a crisis occurs and how they can facilitate recovery in the aftermath of a crisis. Schools should ask themselves:

  • What are the effects of crisis reactions on learning and behavior?
  • What is the appropriate role of our school in mitigating these reactions and returning to a
    sense of normalcy?
  • What resources are necessary?
  • What stresses are placed on the teaching, learning, and support systems necessary to maintaining “normalcy,” and how are these addressed?

Best practices

By their very nature, crises are rare experiences, particularly those affecting the community at-large or involving serious violence. Despite what many believe, extreme school violence has not risen significantly over time, and some research suggests that, context aside, any individual school can expect one homicide on school grounds every 6,000 years (Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010). Nevertheless, schools should always recognize that they are not immune. One survey of 228 school psychologists found that 93% of them had reported that their schools experienced a serious crisis at some point (Adamson & Peacock, 2007). Planning efforts should focus on minimizing effects and promoting recovery rather than only “putting out fires.”

In other words, schools should be prepared, not scared. As one school mental health professional in Newtown noted, “You can’t really fully prepare for the truly unthinkable like this, but you can be prepared enough to take appropriate immediate action and then recognize how you have to adjust your plan to reality going forward. In our case, this will be a long-term, ongoing process.”

Mental health and crisis supports should be made available to any student and staff who want support in the aftermath of a traumatic event or tragic loss.

Today, best practice reflects our evolution in understanding and encompasses the continuum of crisis and emergency management: prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery as well as the integration of physical and psychological safety, and the integration of multiple key systems. This is articulated in the joint guidance for emergency planning published by the U.S. Department of Education in 2013. (See

Prevention efforts create an environment in which students feel valued and empowered and support successful learning, such as access to mental health services, positive discipline, positive behavioral interventions and supports, bullying prevention, and other school safety programming.

Preparedness activities take place before a crisis and include plans to respond to any number of potential crises or traumatic events.

Response includes actions in the immediate and short-term aftermath of a crisis to ensure physical safety, prevent property damage, confirm details, and identify and respond to negative mental health outcomes.

Recovery refers to the task of rebuilding and returning to normalcy or previous levels of functioning after a crisis. Recovery can take months or even years depending on a number of factors.

Importantly, composing interdisciplinary teams and having collaboration among school staff and between school personnel and community providers are critical to all four of these phases. Such collaboration allows for more efficient communication, the ability to target and/or augment resources as necessary, improved consistency and continuity of services, and stronger linkages to learning. As such, crisis management efforts should be designed, funded, and implemented as part of a comprehensive schoolwide approach that integrates mental health services and school safety programming.


The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Schools should accept a similar framework for responding to the unthinkable by having a comprehensive and coordinated plan that includes prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. Health after a crisis is not achieved simply through the minimization of effect but through the ongoing promotion of both physical and psychological safety.

A school’s capacity to respond to a crisis almost always reflects the safety, crisis, and mental health resources that were in place before the crisis.

For schools significantly affected by crisis, response and recovery require the engagement of systems that are very likely under extreme stress. Such systems can include everything from teaching and student supports to facilities management and communications. The closer the school is to the nexus of an event, such as a school shooting, the greater and more intense the concentric circles of need, the more potentially affected the staff involved, and hence the more vulnerable the systems they uphold. Depending on the nature and magnitude of the event, recovery can take months, even years, and the trajectory for individuals will vary tremendously. A school’s capacity to meet the confluence of needs and mitigate trauma reactions in the event of a crisis will almost always reflect the functionality of the safety, crisis, and mental health resources that were in place before the crisis.

Other important considerations

#1. Reasonable physical security measures, response protocols, crisis drills, and solid relationships with community public safety responders are critical. Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown is a good example of a school that had many of these best practices in place. While physical barriers (locked doors and a buzzer system) failed, as they most always will with a determined armed intruder who is prepared to die, the other systems worked as well as one could expect. The Newtown staff had received crisis training and, by all accounts, they knew what to do, acted swiftly, and most likely saved many, many lives, as did the Newtown police department in its rapid and skilled response. A comprehensive look at school crisis prevention and response must look at these other factors as well. The key here, though, was advanced planning and preparedness.

#2. Effective crisis response is necessary for all crises. This issue of Kappan focuses primarily on the kinds of crises that can deeply touch, even engulf a school community. These come in many shapes and sizes, and most won’t make the national news but can still have a significant effect. However, schools must be mindful to employ effective crisis response in every crisis situation, including the more common events such as the accidental or unexpected death or suicide of students or staff, gang violence, or destructive weather events that do not rise to the level of an F5 tornado.

#3. School districts must consider how best to allocate scarce resources to maximize their crisis capacity. What are the cost-benefits of increased security — metal detectors and armed guards, for example — versus expanded mental health services? What are the key components of crisis team and staff training? In the end, purchasing programs or pieces of equipment will not be nearly as effective for responding to crises as comprehensive, collaborative, and sustainable schoolwide or districtwide efforts that include all school staff and community stakeholders. To illustrate, shortly after receiving training through the PREPaRE School Crisis Prevention and Intervention Training Curriculum (Brock, 2011; Reeves et al., 2011), an Idaho school district experienced the death of a beloved staff member’s child, the suicide death of a middle school student, and the death of a student in a car accident all within a short time span. A member of the district crisis team noted that, based on the training the team had received, “We were able to offer guidance and direction to administration, teachers, and staff. We had the needed materials for recordkeeping and
handouts for parents and knew the procedures to follow. The affected schools were grateful for outside support from counselors who were not as emotionally connected so that we could be the scaffolding support for those adults who were, themselves, in crisis.”

#4. Preparation for crises is an ongoing, dynamic process for schools. For example, the proliferation of social media has required schools to become nimble in their communication and reduction of rumors. Scott Showalter, a school psychologist in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, recalls a situation that potentially complicated the school’s response when a student died in an accident on a Friday evening. School officials worked over the weekend to develop a communications plan, but many students had learned about the death from social media and had been able to process it with family and friends for a few days. But some other students and staff did not hear about the death until Monday and hadn’t had the opportunity it process it, said Showalter. “So, we had people at very different stages of the grieving process, which made for a complex approach.”

Planning for safety 

The National Association of School Psychologists ( provides resources for helping schools and districts use effective practices to improve student learning, behavior, and mental health. NASP believes that improving school safety should be designed, funded, and implemented as part of a comprehensive schoolwide approach that integrates mental health services and school safety programming. In cooperation with several other education organizations, NASP has developed A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools to help schools improve safety and increase access to mental health supports for children and youth.

For the Framework:

For other resources related to safety and violence prevention:


Adamson, A.D. & Peacock, G.G. (2007). Crisis response in the public schools: A survey of school psychologists’ experiences and perceptions. Psychology in the Schools, 44, 749-763.

Borum, R., Cornell, D., Modzeleski, W., & Jimerson, S. (2010). What can be done about school shootings? A review of the evidence. Educational Researcher, 39 (1), 27-37.

Brock, S. (2011). PREPaRE: Crisis intervention & recovery: The roles of the school-based mental health professional (2nd ed.). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Cowan, K.C., Vaillancourt, K., Rossen, E., & Pollitt, K. (2013). A framework for safe and successful schools. [Brief]. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Reeves, M.A., Nickerson, A.B., Conolly-Wilson, C.N., Susan, M.K., Lazzaro, B.R., Jimerson, S.R., & Pesce, R.C. (2011). Crisis prevention & preparedness: Comprehensive school safety planning (2nd ed.). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.


Originally published in the December 2013/January 2014 Phi Delta Kappan 95 (4), 8-12. © 2013 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.

KATHERINE C. COWAN is director of communications and manages crisis communication and outreach for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), Bethesda, Md.
ERIC ROSSEN is a nationally certified school psychologist and director of professional development and standards at NASP. Rossen also is editor of Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students: A Guide for School-Based Professionals (Oxford University Press, 2013 ).

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