Rather safe than sorry: schools need to have a plan for potential crises

It was a typical Johannesburg school-day morning. A mother was dropping off her 11-year-old son, Tristan, at the local primary school. As she drove her car slowly towards a side gate of the school, two people jumped out of a van parked nearby.
They rushed towards the mother’s car. Within seconds, pistols were pushed against the heads of the terrified mother and son. In less than a minute they were ordered out of the car. The hijackers fled and the vehicles merged into Johannesburg traffic.

Talk Radio 702 picked up the hijacking incident and spread it across Gauteng before the first school lesson of the day. Rumours and questions started flying. How many cars had been hijacked? How many people had been shot? The school switchboard was flooded with calls from understandably anxious parents.

No school is immune from the possibility of having to deal with a crisis. There are natural disasters such as earthquakes, bush fires, floods, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions — and then there are the man-made ones. Recent examples in South Africa have been the barricading of schools and offices to prevent entry or exit, the torching of buildings, and pupils and teachers being knifed, shot or run over.

Schools have a huge responsibility to ensure security and safety for everyone who walks through their gates. Perhaps one of the tough realities that confront thousands of South African schools is insufficient funds to ensure optimal safety. Yet, with limited resources, a school can still do a lot to ensure the safety of ­children, parents and staff.

Everyone needs to know what’s expected of him or her in a crisis. Effective crisis management minimises potential physical damage and reduces hysterical reactions.

Here are eight suggestions on how to handle a crisis: (Acknowledgements: N Flanagan and J Finger in The Management Bible; J Spark in The Star, March 13 2010):

Be prepared to deal with a crisis. Have an evacuation drill in place that’s understood by everyone. Each staff member should have a copy of evacuation measures, including emergency contact numbers. Practise evacuation drills once a term (even though there might be the odd staff member who’ll grumble about it being a waste of time). Make sure that the fire extinguishers and fire hoses are checked annually.
Put a crisis team in place. The members need to know their specific duties. Check that the sick-rooms have suitable first-aid equipment. Ensure that contact details for the families of every child are readily available. (Cellphone and landline numbers need frequent updating.) Insurance is a grudge purchase but it’s necessary. Comprehensive insurance will help a school to deal with issues such as burglary, fire, theft and injuries in the classroom and on the sports fields.

Analyse the situation
Unfortunately, some people really enjoy a crisis. “Fire! Fire!” is a favourite refrain when a lit match is dropped. Ask these sorts of questions before going into crisis management mode. If it is a crisis, who else needs to be involved? What resources do we have in place? What needs to be done?

Stay calm
In the first verse of Felicia Hemans’s famous poem Casabianca, a 12-year-old English boy shows exceptional bravery. As a youngster in Horatio Nelson’s naval squadron at the 1798 Battle of the Nile, he is immortalised thus:
“The boy stood on the burning deck / Whence all but he had fled / The flame that lit the battle’s wreck / Shone round him o’er the dead ...”
Casabianca is an extreme example of remaining calm in a crisis. Obviously, people become nervous in crisis situations. But think positively. Know that you will find the resources to deal with the crisis. Use the nervousness to good effect, to move you to action. Work through a to-do list and prioritise what needs to be done.

Get the team moving
It’s now time for action. Team members have different roles to play. They know what procedures need to be followed. The team assists and directs others on how to deal with the crisis.

Keep communication open
In a crisis people want to be told the truth about what happened. They also want to know what’s being done to avoid it happening in the future.
To reduce panic, make sure that there’s an “official” spokesperson. That person needs to give information that is both honest and frank and that person’s words need to be trusted.
Communication can be conveyed verbally in the classroom, over the intercom, in the staffroom or at a specially convened assembly. Staff should be available at the switchboard to answer telephonic inquiries. Written communication can be done by means of circulars, newsletters, school website postings and SMSes.

Provide counselling
In the car-hijacking incident Tristan and his mother were traumatised. Post-trauma counselling was urgently needed. Most schools have a counsellor on the staff. There are times when the professional skills of the counsellor are insufficient for the level of trauma experienced. If specialist skills are needed, call such experts to the school.

Be supportive
A crisis in school can cause long-term generalised anxiety. Be sensitive to that concern. The simple activity of face-to-face chatting about the issue helps. Victims unload their concerns. Ask the question: “What can we do for you?” Keep everyone informed about what’s being done to deal with the crisis.

Evaluate actions and revise
During a crisis, monitor how things are progressing. An emergency plan helps you set out on the right path, but the actual emergency doesn’t often go precisely according to the manual. Tweak the action to the unique situation with which you are confronted.
Once the crisis is over, there’s a need for a review. The crisis team should have a thorough debriefing. What happened and how was it handled? A ruthlessly honest review will highlight problems that were encountered. The review discussion will help to improve, if necessary, ways to deal with such crises in the future.

This was first published in Quality Education News Issue 14. Go to www.saqi.co.za for more. This article has been reprinted with permission

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