Last week in Crisis Counseling and Disaster Mental Health, our class spent some time discussing the tragedy that occurred at Columbine High School in 1999. A community was devastated and the nation was shocked after two students shot and killed their fellow classmates. From the outside, these young men did not appear threatening; they came from nice homes and did well in school. Outwardly, there was nothing to distinguish them from the other teenagers who attended Columbine High School each day. On the inside, however, something was clearly amiss. While not every tragedy that occurs can be predicted or prevented, one can certainly learn from such events and help to prevent them from happening in the future.
Not every crisis that occurs in schools is of the magnitude of Columbine, but school professionals need to be prepared to deal with any emergency situation that may develop. They should also have a plan in place to deal with the traumatic effects that may occur after the fact. Many schools have emergency action teams to deal with events ranging from fires and weapons to expected or unexpected death. School counselors and other school professionals need to know and understand these plans, and should be prepared to respond if need be. Preparation should include some form of practice (e.g. having a fire drill) so that the procedures become commonplace and easier to remember in an emergency situation.
While it is important to have a plan in place for dealing with emergency situations, prevention is obviously the better alternative. It is crucial for school counselors to facilitate communication between students, teachers, parents, and administrators. Teenagers are emotional by nature, but school professionals should always be on the lookout for changes in behavior or physical appearance that may indicate a cause for concern. Counselors should meet with teachers, parents, and students on a regular basis to discuss at risk students and remediate problems before they spin out of control
If a crisis has occurred, how do you, as a school counselor, be of help? Every situation is different, so it is important to assess the need. There are a number of factors that indicate one’s ability to overcome trauma, including social supports, intellectual capability, and pre-existing psychological conditions. Some signs that an individual is in need of help include, but are not limited to, isolation and withdrawal from others and feelings of anxiety, guilt, fear, and/or helplessness/hopelessness. If any student or school professional exhibits these symptoms, it is best to consult with others (while being mindful of student confidentiality) to determine the next step.