School Crisis: Back to Business as Usual?

Dr. Ann Skelcher

I’ve learned that no school is immune to crisis. In 2011, while facilitating at an international conference, I asked a room of educational leaders to describe their experiences with crises. Sadly, every participant had a story to tell. We heard about students killed in a vehicle crash, child molestation by a staff member, and others. I too had a story to share.

As participants spoke, their sadness was present and palpable years after the events occurred. Some struggled with feelings that district and school leaders mishandled the crises in their communities, yet couldn’t identify alternatives to the actions taken.

Some significant themes emerged from the stories they shared:

  • Staff felt like the emotional toll of the tragedies didn’t seem to matter to those in charge.
  • Feeling vulnerable, leaders appeared resistant to talking about the causes and repercussions of the crises.
  • The instinct to provide kids with structure and predictability during difficult times can cause school leaders to prematurely get back to “business as usual”.

My Own Story

I wasn’t there when it all began – the day it was reported that a former teacher, two-years gone from the school and now employed elsewhere, was charged with 2 counts of child sexual abuse. The day our grade 7 teacher went to her students with reports of the charges to ask them what they knew. The day they said:

“Of course, we know about him – everyone does. He did it here, too.”

I was assigned to the school 3 years later. The court case was over – the teacher was incarcerated. At the school, it was “business as usual”. I stepped into my principal role believing the crisis was over. I was firm in that belief until one day, home with the flu, the call came:

“Come to the school. There’s been another allegation about another teacher.”

The police came, the investigation was thorough, the allegation unfounded. But the students didn’t believe the police, school district officials, or even me. There was nothing that anyone could say to convince students, and many of the parents, that our school was a safe place. Our community felt much like the conference participants I would speak to years later – loss of trust, resentment, and isolation.

How did the wounds of the past open up so immediately and harshly?

The answers that came back to us from our school community were:

  • At the time, school and district leaders didn’t communicate with us.
  • We saw denial, blame and immediate attempts to return to business-as-usual at the school.
  • No one openly examined what went wrong and how it could have been prevented.

What Are The Alternatives?

How could educational leaders have responded differently? What could school and district leaders have done to ensure healing and authentic recovery?

After my retirement from school leadership, I came to work at ThoughtExchange and read the case study, Rebuilding Marysville. There I found the same themes that emerged from my doctoral study of my own crisis experience. I am grateful to Dr. Berg and the people of Marysville for the vulnerability they showed in sharing their story and the lessons they learned.

Build and maintain trust

  • Attend to emotional and social needs as soon as immediate safety concerns are addressed. Crisis will hurt people and their relationships – genuine care for students, parents, staff and the broader community is powerful medicine and builds community trust and confidence.

Work collaboratively and engage the school community

  • Don’t do it alone. Your ability to identify the school community’s needs and respond effectively will be enhanced by a team of counsellors, school staff, parents and community members. You don’t need a big team just a representative one. Listen hard and deeply to your team.
  • Choose a leadership partner to walk beside you and share the burden of decision-making. Check in and monitor each other’s feelings and responses frequently because you too will be effected by the events.
  • Make meaning from what has occurred. Recognize and act on the potential for positive change. Grief can be reframed as hope and is powerful fuel in crisis recovery.
  • Moving forward together is the best way to demonstrate healing. Bring the school community together to reclaim or rebuild the school’s central purposes and shared vision. Hold to core values like respect and ask that others do the same. Work together to create something that grows out of that vision.

Communicate authentically, openly, frequently and responsively

  • Keep the school community informed about unfolding events and about the approaches, priorities and actions being taken.
  • Give people a place to speak of their pain and to receive understanding and expressions of care.
  • Stay focused and listen hard and authentically.
  • Acknowledge the need for and pursue an investigation into causes and future prevention

The work of recovery is a lengthy journey

  • Providing the structure that all people need during times of crises as well as opportunities for healing, learning and rebuilding trust and confidence is essential. Conducting the ‘business’ of school has to be done concurrently with recovery work – not instead of.

Acknowledge that it’s not if a crisis will occur, it’s when.

  • The complexity of crises makes it impossible to prepare for all eventualities. Prescriptive plans have their place, but more importantly, be prepared by learning the lessons of past crises, like Marysville’s and my story.

Crisis brings with it its own set of demands. It draws into question past practice and core values, sense of purpose, and relationships. The choice facing leaders and all members of the school community is to protect what was, or to see the crisis as an opportunity for learning and renewal. What becomes possible is to recreate something even better, stronger, and more resilient.

Read Part 2: From Crisis to Renewal

About the Author

Dr. Ann Skelcher

Ann is our Senior Engagement Consultant and comes to ThoughtExchange from a 34 year career in education, eight of which she spent serving as a classroom and special education teacher. She then moved into leadership roles as vice-principal and principal at both the elementary and secondary levels. Ann’s doctoral program in educational leadership centred on school crisis recovery and provided opportunity for her to look reflexively at the role of school leaders. As well, she has shared her work on school culture, parent engagement, and student assessment in BC, Alberta and Nunavut. Time with her supportive and loving partner, two grown children and four grandchildren as well as quiet time in the garden, yoga, and forest walks keep Ann energized and balanced.