An Effective Crisis Response Team

Every school needs the ability to implement its emergency operations plan effectively in the event of a crisis. For moderate to large districts, crisis situations can be expected on a somewhat regular basis. Whether the crisis involves the death of a student in an automobile accident, the suicide of a faculty member, a severe weather incident or an act of senseless violence on campus, a measured and efficient response is needed.

These tragic situations require that an effective and properly trained crisis response team be established before the incident occurs. As we have seen repeatedly in the past few years, it is common for even large school districts to be caught off guard by crisis situations that are beyond their capability to handle. The problems that result from this lack of preparedness can take millions of dollars and many years of emotional difficulty to try to rectify. Unfortunately, many of the mistakes that are made can never be fully corrected.

The Basics of Developing a Team

The first rule of thumb in developing a school crisis response team is that you cannot be over-prepared for school crisis situations. It is common for school crisis response teams to oversimplify and underestimate what they may be called upon to do if a major crisis occurs. Through proper preparation, training and the use of appropriate crisis exercises, a team can be developed that can perform well under demanding circumstances.

School districts and larger private institutions should consider having a crisis response team at each facility and an overall crisis team to support the team in place at each school. It could also be advantageous for regional crisis response teams to be developed, so small school systems and private schools in the same region can receive the pre-planned response assistance in the event of a major incident. For example, it can be very helpful if five area school systems have an agreement to provide trained counselors from each district to any of the participating systems that experiences a major crisis. This type of assistance is often provided following a major crisis, but without planning, the response will not be as efficient.

Careful consideration should be given regarding the selection of the personnel who will serve on each crisis team. One school system recently conducted a very realistic full-scale exercise to test its emergency operations plan. During the exercise, school officials found that many crisis team members were not capable of functioning adequately under the stress and physical demands of a major crisis. Team members may be required to deal with physically and emotionally stressful situations for long periods of time. In many cases, team members may have to perform at high levels for days or even weeks without adequate rest.

A variety of backgrounds should ideally be represented on the crisis response team. The size of a team may be dictated by the number of employees on staff. In very small schools, the crisis team may be limited to only three or four individuals due to the number of personnel. This situation lends itself to the creation of a multi-district crisis response team. In larger organizations, more team members will be practical. In any case, it is best if there is a back-up team member for each regular team member. Examples of the types of personnel who might be needed on the crisis team include school administrator, school mental health personnel, custodial staff, maintenance staff, media center personnel, food service personnel, transportation personnel, public information officer and PTA/parent volunteers. Each organization has different needs and resources, and other categories of personnel may be appropriate for your situation.

Roles and Responsibilities

In a typical situation, the following sub-teams might be formed within each team:

    • Operations team: Designated to implement the varying aspects of the emergency operations plan in the event of a crisis.

    • Mental health team: Responsible for all mental health support and coordination during the crisis response and recovery phases.

    • Support team: Tasked with the coordination between various team components and with documentation of all crisis response and recovery efforts. The support team is also responsible for the preparation and distribution of all handout materials, briefing district personnel and drafting and issuing of press releases.

    Of course, crisis team members should be fully involved with the development of and annual revisions of emergency operations plans, in-service training efforts and all crisis exercises. It is of critical importance that crisis team members are involved with periodic exercises (see April 2000 SP&M column) once the emergency operations plan has been completed and team members have been trained. Without exercises, it is impossible accurately to predict how well a crisis response team will function under actual conditions. Any major school crisis situation will provide challenges and some mistakes will occur under even the best of circumstances. Through the development of an effective crisis response team, the negative effects of a school crisis situation can be significantly reduced.

    Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at