School officials learn to prepare for trauma

About 130 social workers, counselors, teachers and administrators spent Tuesday at Tulane University getting better prepared for traumatic events like a student death, school shooting, natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

The daylong workshop, called “Crisis Prevention and Preparedness: Comprehensive School Safety Planning,” followed a survey initiated by the health department.

Shareen Naser, a doctoral student and one of the presenters, said it was clear that local schools weren’t as prepared as they needed to be for traumatic events.

Staff from approximately 40 public schools attended the workshop, which was planned prior to the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, but the recent tragedy made many of the topics discussed timely and relevant.

The first of two workshops, Tuesday’s presentation focused on the prevention and preparation side of a crisis, while the second, scheduled for June, will focus on the response and recovery following a crisis, said Stacy Overstreet, Tulane professor of psychology.

Making comprehensive plans is important because schools are unique environments that require different considerations than other offices or agencies, and because it is required by federal legislation, Overstreet said.

Without a plan, Overstreet said, schools can have a hard time reducing the negative effect of a crisis, and a lack of planning can impair the school’s ability to respond to a crisis.

The stakes are higher for children, who are more vulnerable to trauma and for whom the consequences can last longer, Overstreet said.

The workshop was designed to give participants the knowledge and tools to bring back to their schools and create plans that take into account the individual characteristics and needs of each school, she said.

The lessons looked at the characteristics of different kinds of crises, whether gradual or sudden.

Hurricane Katrina broke the mold for the typical trauma related to natural disasters, Overstreet said, in that the rates of mental illness were much higher, the scope of destruction larger and duration of the effect much longer.

It isn’t possible to prepare for everything, Overstreet said, but schools can assess their greatest areas of need and identify the trauma most likely to affect their schools — such as hurricanes, school violence and community violence — and prioritize their plans accordingly.

She noted that it’s important to identify what the school can handle alone and what types of events require the support of outside agencies, such as police, the fire department and community nonprofits and agencies.

Overstreet stressed the need for balance between the physical and psychological aspects of school safety.

Armed guards, locked doors, metal detectors and cameras are only one side of creating a safer place, she said.

Overstreet cited a study that showed that the best thing that schools can do to reduce violence is to improve the school climate by addressing the emotional and behavioral needs of both the faculty and the students.

Doctoral student Allisyn Swift detailed the differences — all backed by data-driven research. Many things can improve the physical structure of a school, Swift said, such as ensuring that there is a single entry point at which visitors must be approved and allowed access through a second set of locked doors. Cameras are useful, but only if there is someone watching, she said. Faculty can make sure to maintain a direct line of sight down hallways and interact with students during class changes to improve communication.

Swift also discussed the psychological side, such as the importance of displaying the mascot, or colors and positive words on murals and walls to give students pride and ownership in their school, helping the kids feel a connection and sense of belonging.

When students feel comfortable and safe and are well-adapted socially, data shows a direct correlation to improved academic performance, she said.

The workshop also outlined ways to improve the students’ inner resiliency by teaching them how to identify and regulate their emotions and feel competent in solving problems. Identifying kids who may have mental health issues or be prone to bullying, violence or suicide is another important part of prevention, Swift said.

Overstreet said that with school safety initiatives introduced by President Barack Obama in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, there is new potential for increased funding and resources to help create and implement improved comprehensive safety plans for public schools.