Contributors: Deirdra Hawkes (ASCA), Heidi Truax, Ph.D. (Chicago Public Schools), Rebecca Atkins (Wake County Public Schools) and Cheri Lovre (Crisis Management Institute)
Planning and policy
- Prepare a statement from the district if necessary.
- Review the district crisis plan to determine what is applicable, what is missing, etc. Use the district plan as a template to prepare. Administrators will need to recognize the impact this event has on all staff and plan for what they can do in the community to ensure a supportive environment that meets everyone’s needs.
- Support teachers and school mental health professionals in their own emotional response related to the verdict, such as access to break rooms and counselors from the community for emotional support, etc.
- Share information related to any employee assistance program that might be available.
- Encourage teachers to set aside time to discuss student response in class and provide resources to do so. (See ASCA’s resources for responding to racial violence.)
- Plan for regular check-ins with staff, students and parents over the coming weeks (meet-ups, focus groups, etc.).
- Determine the following:
- if/when to tell students during the school day; include prepared statements for teachers to read if applicable.
- whether viewing will be allowed in high schools. In elementary and middle school, viewing the verdict has the potential to be traumatic and upsetting; students this age should view and discuss with their families. However, news will travel fast with students and teachers likely receiving alerts on their phone, so some type of prepared response will be needed.
- physical safety needs. What needs to be done to keep staff and students safe? COVID-19 makes everything more complicated so taking another look at these plans ahead of time will be helpful.
- Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) “Supporting Students During Tragedy” guide suggests meeting with colleagues in grade-level teams to determine what kind of coordination and collaboration you need to do across classrooms. Think about what activities make sense to do during the first few periods.
Preparing yourself to support students
Before you can take care of your students, you should make sure to address your own mental and emotional wellness. Take time to process your own feelings, beliefs and experiences. Reflect on the following questions:
- Am I emotionally able to assist my students in this way at this time?
- What support do I need?
- Who will I go to for support?
- What actions can I take right now that will help me later?
- How can I unpack the emotions I may experience after supporting my students?
Reflect on how you want to show up for your students, colleagues and community. Take time to consider the people who will need support in your school community, whether they are your colleagues, students, principal or families. Consider what they may bring with them into the spaces you share, what you can provide for students and what additional support may be needed for staff and families.
Supporting student mental health
- Allow for and support student voice in response to the verdict at all grade levels -– not just in high school and not just when students start the response themselves.
- Ensure school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers are prepared to support students. Coordinate how staff will be available to students in person or remotely throughout the day.
- Remember these points suggested by the Crisis Management Institute during conversations with students:
- Tell students it is okay if they do not want to participate in the discussion. Explain that we all have our own individual ways of coping, and if students chooses not to participate, we respect their decision.
- Acknowledge the truth about what is happening. “I think it’s really important that we stop and pay attention when things like this happen. We can learn from one another. I want us to take some time with this.”
- Set the ground rules. One of the greatest lessons for us in acknowledging racism in America is to recognize the critical importance of respect and open listening. That doesn’t mean accepting someone else’s point of view is true for you but that it is true for them at this point. If we are open to learning as we learn to have these difficult conversations, most of us will come to some new conclusions and understandings along the way. Make room for discomfort, make “I” statements, give everyone the chance to speak, step back and reflect, take care of yourself and be kind to others.
- Understand this may be a trigger. Seeing the news coverage may be very difficult for some students because of their particular experiences. They may re-experience feelings of danger, threat or fear. It helps students to know this reaction is not unusual.
- Talk about how racism shows itself. How does a person of color define racism? How does a white person define racism? What advantages or disadvantages do I have? See this resource from ADL: Fighting Hate for Good.
- Show compassion as each person is in a different phase of growth and understanding.
- Consider setting up a safe room (virtual or otherwise) or an open drop-in conversation for students. This can create an opportunity for student learning, increasing awareness and connecting racism to their moral compass.
Partnering with families to support students
Students don't immediately return to okay just because the school day has ended. Parents/guardians are critical stakeholders not only in the education process but also in helping students deal with trauma. One way to maintain care is to partner with families, using communications, sharing resources and referring out for further assistance if the student requires additional support beyond the scope of immediate crisis counseling.
In your communications with parents/guardians, be sure to provide specific information about your level of care with students during the crisis so parents can reinforce with students where to seek help during the school day. Parents/guardians also need to be equipped to manage these unique conversations with their children. Providing resources and tips for parents via website or other communication may enhance their ability to navigate the difficult conversations as well as validate feelings, even if the child's sentiments are different than those of the parent/guardian.
Developmentally speaking, parents/guardians can also prepare themselves by knowing to what degree a child may process trauma. Helping them keep the lines of communication open will build trust and sense of security at home and reinforce the work taking place to help the student while at school.
Depending on the event, your school may need to prepare for a variety of scenarios with parents/guardians, including a sudden need for some to check out their student early or if the school is planning for an early release. Work with administration to ensure the crisis response plan speaks to these scenarios so staff are prepared to implement the process if needed.
Establishing Student Agreements
Ask students to consider what conditions and agreements they need from the school and classroom community to have a safe and productive discussion. Touch base on the classroom agreements you have set for this year and ask students to consider what might need to be added to these agreements to prepare for the discussion. As you continue through the discussion, remind students of your agreements, and encourage students to use them, name them and return to them.
Consider proposing the below agreements:
- We recognize our humanity and the humanity of others. We know that we all carry a lot of emotions, we are all living through and with trauma right now, and it’s okay to not be okay. Therefore, we will agree that we can all be what we need to be in this space and that we will love and uplift each other by giving words of encouragement or finger snaps for support.
- We share time to speak. Recognize when others have not yet participated. Ask them if they’d like to share their thoughts or feelings with a statement such as “If you don’t want to share your own thoughts, feel free to acknowledge someone else’s.”
- We share with an open mind. Instead of planning how to respond or thinking about what to say next when someone is speaking, we think about what was said before formulating a response.
- We listen and speak with care. We speak with mindfulness of others. We listen carefully and try to understand perspectives of those we disagree with. We learn how to do better in the future.
- We listen harder when we disagree. If we find ourselves wanting to revise what someone else is saying it, we try to listen and ask questions to better understand their experiences that informed their opinion.
- We recognize the factors that have shaped our perspectives, including life experience, family, culture, all the things that make up our identity. We understand that others will come to these discussions with similar and different experience from ours. We stay open to informing our perspectives based on what we learn from others.
- We agree that stories stay in and learning goes out. When we leave this space, we will continue to reflect and grow, but we will not repeat what others have said.
(Reprinted with permission from Chicago Public Schools’ “Supporting Students During Tragedy” guide.):