What Will They Do Under Stress

A news reporter called to see if school officials had been properly prepared for a crisis situation in his community. The reporter emphasized that he did not wish to cover the incident in a critical manner if school officials had acted properly, but he had concerns that their response to an incident might not have been appropriate. In methodical detail, he described how he had obtained security camera footage from the school, a tape of the 911 call and a tape of the law enforcement radio traffic during their response to the incident. He described the actions of school officials documented by security cameras and the 911 call, and laid out the timeline he had developed based on all three resources.

While some of the actions described miay sound problematic to the layperson, they were actually quite appropriate. At the same time, a number of the actions he described were pretty clear indications of a lack of preparedness, and pretty solid indicators that school employees had not been properly prepared to function under the stress of an actual crisis event. If his descriptions are accurate, school officials will likely have some significant problems with issues of public trust and may be highly exposed to successful litigation in regard to the manner in they handled the incident — since a student died.

As important as proper school crisis plan development, distribution and training are, the methods used to properly equip staff to function under extreme stress are at least as important and, in some cases, are more important than the quality of crisis plans. The proper utilization of a progressive exercise program, incorporating scenarios requiring independent judgment of staff, as well as directed actions accompanied by training on how staff can overcome the powerful effects of stress, are invaluable ways to help prepare staff for crisis situations. In a number of instances around the nation and abroad, school employees have demonstrated an almost amazing ability to function under extreme conditions, including the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, an attack on an elementary school in Holland by terrorists armed with fully automatic weapons and hand grenades, an accidental detonation of an M-79 grenade in a Georgia high school band room, a near tragedy averted by a heroic school bus driver in Minnesota and a number of other extraordinarily challenging situations where school employees rose to extreme challenges when young lives were at stake.

These examples demonstrate why school officials and their public safety partners should emphasize research-proven methodologies such as crisis breathing, visualization, staff directed emergency drills requiring independent as well as directed actions, and other proven approaches to improve the chances that staff members will retain effective cognitive reasoning capabilities during crisis situations. Fortunately, a growing number of schools and school systems are moving beyond paper plans and software approaches to address the critical aspect of human performance under extreme stress.

Simple yet critical action steps, like remembering to take an emergency kit during an evacuation, can be easily forgotten by school staff acting under extreme stress during an emergency if they have not been properly prepared for crisis situations.