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January 18, 2002

Prof prepares schools to deal with crisis

Most of the time, a school crisis doesn't become a Columbine-level national disaster. But a CSUS school psychology professor and national expert on school crisis response says that regardless of the cause or severity of a crisis, efforts to limit the impact should start before an event occurs.

Stephen Brock, author of Preparing for Crises in the Schools: A Manual for Building School Crisis Response Teams, says, "I view crisis response not just as responding to the aftermath but crisis prevention - doing what you can to prevent the crisis in the first place," he says. "Planning helps reduce the anxiety created by a crisis situation. If you're anxious, you don't have as much attention to devote to others who need it."

Brock's push for preparation is backed by over a decade of experience in assisting with school crisis response, including representing the U.S. Department of Education in the aftermath of last March's pair of school shootings near San Diego. He also wrote several chapters in the Handbook of Crisis Counseling, Intervention and Prevention in the Schools and edited the just-published Best Practice in School Crisis Prevention and Intervention.

"The essence of crisis preparation is the key players have to acknowledge that school crisis is not just a possibility - it's a reality. That's not a fun thing," Brock says. "Those involved in the discussion must decide what procedures you will follow in a crisis so that when it does happen you're not caught with your 'plans' down."

Prevention efforts can include training in social skills, anger reduction, conflict management and identifying youth at risk of violence. Part of prevention is preparedness - determining where crisis events are likely to occur and having a general safety plan in place to deal with potential situations.

Brock first became involved with school crisis preparation and response as lead psychologist for the Lodi School District.

While it is now common for counselors to be on hand to help students and faculty cope with a tragedy, that wasn't always the case. An off-campus accidental shooting at one of the schools in his district "hit the school like a ton of bricks," he says. "It was my first real-life experience responding to such an event and as it ended, I realized I could've been much better prepared."

He began putting together district-wide policies, practices and procedures. This planning proved crucial for a neighboring district when a gunman took aim on the schoolyard at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, killing five and wounding 25. Brock offered help and was soon working with local mental health professionals.

"It served as a powerful impetus for training and preparation," he says. "Within the year the district had a policy on how to respond and had procedures in place."

The next step in Brock's research will be to study the effectiveness of school crisis responses. "We need to ask 'what are the desired outcomes following a crisis?'" he says.

"These desired outcomes should probably include maintenance of normal school attendance and achievement patterns, and avoidance of a rise in school discipline problems, as well as the identification of those at risk for severe psychological trauma. We need to clearly specify the goals of school crisis response and begin to document how effective our interventions are at obtaining these goals."

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