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April 1, 2010

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A closer look — Mary Margaret Kerr

“People think ‘School crisis: get ready for the lockdown, the shooter, the helicopters flying;’ they picture Columbine,” said Pitt psychology in education professor Mary Margaret Kerr, author of the new book, “School Crisis Prevention and Intervention.”

Such dramatic violent scenarios are rare, but disasters, accidents and illnesses need to be considered in the same realm, said Kerr, a veteran responder to more than 1,000 school crises.


“Crises aren’t always intentional, violent situations,” but rather more often involve asthma, diabetes or adult high blood pressure. “Most school crises are accidents and illnesses, but you just don’t hear about those,” she said.

“If you take all of school crises, including the child with an asthma attack, the adult who has a heart attack, the adult who, a map falls on her shoulder and she collapses in front of her second graders … If you take the complete realm of all possible crises — then it is going to happen and people should know what to do.”

Few school administrators embark on their careers prepared for the reality that they, at some point, will be faced with a crisis situation of some sort, Kerr said, noting that few school leadership programs include crisis prevention and intervention content.

“On-the-job crisis response and recovery is a poor model. But that’s kind of what’s happened,” said Kerr, whose book is designed mainly as a handbook for school personnel or graduate-level students.

“When you leave it to [learning on the job], people do not learn the conceptual framework for school crisis leadership. They don’t read the research, they have no one to interpret the research to them, and so they can’t tell what is best practice from what is worst practice,” Kerr said.

In addition, expecting to develop such skills during a crisis in one’s own workplace is problematic “because you’re connected to the issue and you’re emotionally connected to it. So you don’t have the perspective and necessarily the distance to weigh things in a more objective manner,” she said.

“Preparation leads to calmer, more rational, more thoughtful decisions when a crisis does happen,” Kerr said. “And it reduces, of course, a lot of the crisis in the first place.”

Kerr, whose background is in working with children who have behavioral problems, got her own start in school crisis intervention unintentionally.

As one of the co-founders of Pitt’s state-funded Services for Teens at Risk (STAR) suicide prevention center, she was among the professionals called upon in the aftermath of school tragedies.

“While our primary missions were prevention and treatment and training, what happened in those early years is that we got the telephone calls when someone died by suicide or otherwise in schools,” she said, noting that in the mid-1980s, school and community crisis teams were rare.

She honed her crisis response expertise during a five-year public service leave in which she directed guidance counseling, alternative education, discipline and school safety in the Pittsburgh city schools.

There, she and colleagues developed crisis response models with rapid response times, based on principles of trauma and first-responding.

“I didn’t know at either juncture that we were in new ground. I remember being worried, confused, puzzled and wishing somebody would write a book on how to do this, but it never occurred to me that they hadn’t written the book because nobody was really sure how to do this.”

The idea for the book was born in the midst of a complicated crisis in which Kerr and school personnel were responding to the discovery of hit lists that targeted teachers. Under pressure, frustrated, angry and exasperated, the staff frantically were surfing online, poring over what little information they could find.

One of them turned to her and said, “You’re the professor. Why don’t you write this?” Kerr recalled.

kerr book


Schools are well-prepared to respond to some crises: “Meteorological events and fire drills, we’re really good at,” Kerr said, noting that only recently have schools begun preparing for a wider range of crises.

Fortunately, much preparation and prevention is straightforward, Kerr contends. “For most crises much of it is pretty practical, common sense, but it’s common sense based on guiding principles of prevention and preparation.”

She advocates for training and regular refresher sessions for school crisis teams. “Our response is only as good as our practice for that response,” said Kerr, drawing a comparison to emergency medicine. “Would you want the ambulance to come if the last time they practiced this procedure was a year ago?”

Kerr advises responders to prepare well-stocked  “go” kits containing important information and resources as well as creature comforts to ensure that they will be able to concentrate on the crisis at hand.

Among the contents should be a CD or thumb drive containing any form or letter that potentially might be needed, lists of student names with their bus numbers and the stops they use and emergency contact information for parents as well as fellow crisis responders from the school and community.

“Your go kit not only needs to have in it documents, but also personal supplies for at least 36 hours,” she said.

In training responders, Kerr presents them with the prospect of being snowbound in the school building overnight with a classroom full of middle-schoolers. Along with water and snacks such as nutrition bars, personal go kit items could include prescription medications, eyeglasses, family photos, a Bible or even a supply of chocolate.

“I don’t want to be on your team when you can’t see because your contact lenses have been in too long, or you’re going into your caffeine withdrawal and you need to have your high blood pressure medicine and you’ve been off it for 24 hours.”

Kerr also advises that crisis team members get to know one another before a crisis occurs. When conducting training sessions, she has each participant enumerate a strength and a weakness they bring — sometimes with eye-opening results.

“In one team every single person said they faint at the sight of blood. … Every single one!” she said. Another team was stacked with people who all cited their leadership abilities. “There was not a follower or a less-dominant person in the entire group,” she said.

Another training tactic she uses is having a key member leave unexpectedly in the middle of a crisis exercise, forcing the others to manage on their own.

“The people who people often rely on are the school secretary, the custodian and the principal. And when you start to pull those people out of the team, it’s very interesting to watch what happens,” she said, noting that all of a sudden details such as transferring a phone call, replacing a toner cartridge or turning building systems on and off can become their own mini-crisis.

Her solution for such glitches is to have staff offer demonstrations covering these skills. “When you’re doing it in a simulation, it can be kind of fun,” she said.

Understanding individuals’ responses to stress also is crucial, Kerr said.

Team members’ roles not only must align with their skills and experience, but with their personalities as well. Some people become loud in stressful situations; others react in the opposite manner. “Take the person who’s a little bit too hyper and have them order food for the group,” she recommends, and have the quieter, more reflective person meet with the parents, for instance.

Exercises must reach into the personal, Kerr contends, citing the example of a woman who is an outstanding social worker, but whose immediate response to a crisis is to become quiet. “Other people interpreted that as immobilization, incompetence, not going to be able to help us in a crisis…. What I learned was to call that person, lay out what the crisis was and say, ‘I’ll call you back in 15 minutes.’ Many people tell me, ‘If you hit me with a crisis, I need 10 minutes to pull my thoughts together, then I’m fine,’” she said. “You need to know that about one another.”

In addition, teammates must be aware of and sensitive to each other’s limitations.

Responders can become overwhelmed or situations may strike a personal chord. “There are some roles that certain people can’t take,” she said. Kerr, who lost her father in a car accident, said she said she isn’t fond of responding to accident situations. Likewise, when her children were small, she found it particularly difficult to deal with crises involving young children. Now that they are young adults, college-level incidents are more troubling for her.


While it is the nature of crises to be unexpected, some can be planned for, Kerr said, although many school administrators don’t know how to figure out the kind of crises to prepare for in their own district.

“They will buy from a commercial vendor a big binder that looks like step-by-step recipes for every crisis. And they feel better because the binder is three inches thick and it looks like it covers everything. What they don’t know is that it has not engaged anybody on the local scene,” she said, arguing for educating leaders in the underlying principles.

“No two crises are ever identical,” Kerr said. “If you don’t understand the concept that should guide you, you sure can’t use the recipe,” she said, comparing the situation to a novice cook who may be able to follow a recipe and succeed — until an ingredient is missing, or the oven isn’t quite right or the person can’t identify a certain ingredient.

To have a better idea of which crises may be likely, leaders should consult sources such as school safety data on violence, theft and fights that districts are required to file on a national level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has resources on potential health threats. Local police and health departments also are sources of useful data.

“I recommend that schools annually look at those and also poll teachers, staff and parents,” Kerr said. “Now you have a pretty good sense of what might happen.”

In her Pitt graduate-level classes, Kerr said, students analyze actual crisis plans. One district, for instance, has a plan for killer bees; another, situated near an airport, has a plan in case of an airline disaster.

“There’s a lot to be said about the local context, understanding it, engaging the people in it to deal with what might happen,” she said.


Kerr’s students appreciate having a safe reflective time away from an immediate event to consider what a crisis does to a school, Kerr said. “What they don’t appreciate are the unannounced simulations I put them through.”

Her students may return from a break to find the classroom furniture rearranged and Kerr in press conference mode. She’ll tell them: “‘You have 10 minutes. Here’s the scenario. You’re the superintendent. There’s the podium. Get ready.’”

Or she’ll spring an imminent board meeting on them. “‘You’re the superintendent. Bring together your cabinet. Here’s the issue — there was a shooting or there was a riot or there was a fight. The PTA wants to know what you’re doing and the board meeting is in two hours.’”

The element of surprise is crucial. “I can’t put it on the syllabus because we lose that whole dimension of crisis that is ‘I didn’t expect it and this has happened.’”

Understanding the pace at which a crisis unfolds is difficult, Kerr said. “You can only comprehend that when you go through that, either in simulations or real life. You don’t want to learn it for the first time in real life. You have to make a lot of decisions very rapidly and very well.

“We do a lot of adrenaline-rushing exercises,” she said.

“Do you feel your pulse? Do you feel that panic in your throat? Is your heart racing? This is what it feels like to be in charge of a school in a crisis,” she tells students. “When that feeling returns to you — as it will — when it returns, you have more tolerance. You can handle more anxiety and can think despite your anxiety.”


Rather than solely focusing on preparing for rare types of crises, she’d prefer leaders to practice regular day-in, day-out awareness of details. “Paying attention to their surroundings, using good data to make their decisions, doing everything they can about prevention,” Kerr said.

A typical example: “Way too often you buzz into a school … and the person lets you in without ever looking up,” she said. “Or, the school office is surrounded by glass and completely covered with placards. You can’t see who’s out there. You can’t see that this child had a bee sting, or fell.”

Many prevention strategies are simple and easily learned. Assessments can be done in small increments, or conducted by volunteers to minimize potential crises.

“Most of the work is on responding and recovering and people tend not to look at prevention, mitigation and preparation,” Kerr said.

Caring for the responders

Psychological support for crisis team members, who often find themselves the brunt of anger or criticism, is crucial, she said. “I think the teamwork you do up front can really not only improve the efficacy, the efficiency of the response, but it can also vastly protect people against the psychological assaults that are going to be inevitable,” she said.

One veteran crisis responder likens the situation to being a resident alien. “You start out and people offer you a cup of coffee. By the time you are ready to leave, they’re wondering why you’re drinking all their coffee,” she said.

Crisis response teammates need time to get together to debrief — not only about how the situation was handled, but also to express their own feelings about an event, Kerr said. “Unpacking the incident and learning from it is extremely important in an area that is this experiential.”

Kerr advises responders to keep a paid professional counselor on retainer. “You cannot do this kind of work and not have a professional counselor available to talk to,” she said, acknowledging that she’s consulted one for years. “Don’t wait to go home and burden your family,” she said.

She advises individuals involved in crisis response to take care of themselves. “You need a hobby, personal life, exercise, good nutrition, rest, relief from this.”

Kerr said the message is an important one for school administrators. “I want school leaders to understand the psychological demands of this work so that they can safeguard that school social worker who gets called out for every single crisis, so they can protect the school nurse who’s always being called up.”

“Do not judge how other people need to respond to their tragedy,” Kerr said. “You are not in their shoes. You cannot know. As long as it’s healthy and safe — I’d let people do whatever they need to do,” she said.

Likewise, she said, “Never critique someone else’s crisis unless you’re asked to, because everyone is vulnerable.”

She will, however, offer praise for the unsung heroes who respond in crisis.

Citing 9-11 as an example, she commended the daycare providers and school personnel who cared for other people’s children during the crisis. “Everyone talks about first responders, as well they should. No one talks about the people who stayed at school so that other people could be reassured,” Kerr said. “Most schools did a remarkable job given that nothing could have prepared them for that. People criticized, students criticized: ‘They let us watch TV, they didn’t let us watch.’ I think altogether if you take the scale of that crisis, I think the fact that people just stayed in those classrooms and comforted children is just remarkable.”

Likewise, she was touched by the response to a situation in which city school children witnessed a shooting while riding the bus home from school.

“I will always remember … when the call went out, our school security officers came back to work. They came back on duty and helped us and we escorted every single child on that bus back home with a uniformed security officer who could talk with the parent and explain what happened,” she recalled.

“What you do see in crisis is people really making personal sacrifices to do the right thing and to do the caring thing. And that is what gives this work such meaning,” Kerr said.

“You don’t always have all the answers and most of the time you won’t,” because each crisis is unique, she said. “But your presence can be enormously helpful.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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