Helping schools to deal with a tragedy
A new book guides principals and teachers on how to navigate the storm of a critical incident, including the 'wallop effect' on their own emotions
It is a school's worst nightmare. A tragic event, such as a pupil suicide or suspected suicide, or another death in the school community, all the worse if it involved violence or was the result of an unexpected and traumatic incident, such as a road accident.
Sadly, such critical incidents - events or a series of events, which, according to the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), overwhelm a school's normal coping mechanisms - are a feature of school life.
In each of the past two years, there were 105 occasions when schools sought the involvement of NEPS to deal with catastrophic events. Over the course of the school year, that averages two to three a week. So, every week, hundreds, if not thousands, of students and staff are touched directly by such tragedy.
How does a principal and the rest of the staff, in shock themselves, explain often inexplicable events and then try to pick up the pieces for students, staff and the wider school community, and also deal with their own emotions, in the days and weeks afterwards?
As part of its remit, NEPS has produced guidelines for schools on how to plan for, and deal with, a critical incident, and will also send a team in to a school to assist in the immediate aftermath.
Cavan Monaghan Education Training Board (CMETB) and one of its staff have gone two steps further: the ETB has established its own psychologist-led critical incident team to support the 11 schools, two colleges of further education, six Youthreach centres and a range of adult education and community education centres under its umbrella, when tragedy strikes.
While it is not the only ETB to have a critical incident team, its nature and makeup are believed to be unique.
The psychologist leading the team is Shane Moran, also school chaplain at Largy College, Clones, Co Monaghan. Other members of the core team are Fiona Nugent of CMETB's corporate services department, its director of schools, Paddy Flood and media manager, Catherine Fox. Others, such as guidance counsellors, can also be enlisted, as necessary.
Moran has now written a book, The Clouds That Can Surround a School, a step-by-step guide to fill a gap that he identified in supports for principals and other staff in dealing with critical incidents.
As a chaplain and counselling psychologist, Moran is the obvious go-to person for his own school and, in recent years, has also been an integral part of the response to eight or nine critical incidents in the CMETB area, initially at the request of its former chief executive Martin O'Brien.
The current chief executive John Kearney says they are very fortunate to have a staff member of Moran's expertise, experience and insight.
Moran's book, the first publication of its kind in Ireland and UK, brings together all he has learned over 20 years in education and from what he describes as the "all too common" requests to him from schools and colleges to lend assistance at a time of crisis. Each situation presents its own unique challenges, he says.
"I didn't set out to write a book, I originally sat down in front of the computer to set out simple guidelines for school management around my expectations of them, and their expectations of me, and I found I had a lot more to say than I originally thought."
He says an individual school is like family, and each one is different, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. "It is a place where students feel secure and, in a way, a second home, and this comes into sharper focus during a time of tragedy." It is not only pupils - he says the same can also be said for teachers and other staff.
While NEPS personnel may spend a few hours in a school helping management with the practical and logistical side of the initial response, Moran says after they leave, staff can be left holding a lot of shock, trauma and grief. NEPS does not provide counselling support.
Moran and his team may stay involved for a week: "I might do something as simple as talk to a group of students, perhaps if a teacher is worried about something that has appeared on social media."
His MSc in counselling gives him a certain expertise to help traumatised staff and students, and he can also recognise if a member of the school community needs other professional help.
Moran says we may underestimate the enormous impact of a critical incident and make a number of assumptions.
"One that 'it will not happen in my school' and, two, if such an event does occur, 'we are prepared; sure aren't we an excellent school?'"
While every school should have both a critical incident policy and team in place, according to Moran, the reality is that "it is virtually impossible to be fully prepared for the dark days ahead".
One of the first things he does when he goes into a school is to ask if there is any student who is particularly vulnerable.
As well as detailing how best management can deal with the consequences of a traumatic event, the book also recognises the toll it takes on those on the frontline, such as the principal, deputy principal and members of the school critical incident team, who, he says, can suffer a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, which he describes as the 'wallop effect'.
"The 'wallop effect' for me is primarily the emotional impact a critical incident can have on management and staff members who are right at the coalface. It is similar to the effect of grief, only it goes deeper."
He has noticed it in himself when dealing with a school tragedy. "I needed to park what was going on in myself in order to be effective in supporting a school, however, it was in the days after the incident, when all had returned to relative normality, that I found myself struggling with an onslaught of emotions that, at times, felt overwhelming.
"The traumatic episode, in a way, left me experiencing an array of emotions like sadness, irritability, confusion and pessimism. People should know that these feelings are quite normal."
So, he wants his book to encourage all those involved in dealing with a critical incident "to be open to the real possibility that you can suffer from the effects of the trauma".
He says people on the frontline should "not fall into the trap that, because you are busy, it won't apply to you. When it has all calmed down, then you can get walloped," he says.
The book offers guidelines on how to recognise this and how to follow basic steps of self-care.
Avoid ending up like a rabbit caught in headlights
While it is common practice for schools to have a critical incident policy, Shane Moran believes that they should back that up with critical incident drills, similar to mandatory fire drills: "It will allow a review of policy, it will allow the team to meet and become familiar with their portfolio and also to develop their particular roles, with a view to coordinating and managing the critical incident."
Experience tells him that most schools only refer to it when an incident arises - too late for an effective response.
He says while a policy reads well and looks good when it comes to inspections, if it is not constantly assessed it becomes worthless.
He points out that it is not possible to predict when a critical incident will occur. School management may feel that if it happens, they can dig out the policy and refer to the instructions.
"Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Management need to familiarise themselves with it so that when an incident does occur, their response to it comes almost naturally.
"A critical incident could be so severe that a team could end up like a rabbit caught in headlights, knowing it should do something, but too shocked to move anywhere.
"This is when a well-rehearsed critical incident response, from a capable and prepared team, can help the team to respond rapidly, effectively and sensitively."