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3:58 PM Wed, Sept. 19th

Crisis plan for comfort, compassion key

Schools need to prepare before there is a need

The time to think about a plan to deal with a crisis of any kind, or in the aftermath of a tragedy, is not in the midst of the event or when something has happened and no one knows who to call or how to cope.

With that in mind, the Yavapai County Education Service Agency recently delivered to education leaders an updated version of its long-standing postvention plan, a guide for managing just about any tragedy, be it a student or staff death or natural calamity.

“It’s a template for school districts so that anyone can use it,” said John Schuderer, chairman of the Yavapai Suicide Prevention Council. “We want to make sure that schools don’t just keep it in a binder and stick it on a shelf and forget about it. When you need it, it’s too late.”

As a former Boy Scout, Schuderer said he appreciates the organization’s motto: “Be Prepared.”

The Mayer school district last month relied on the YCESA’s postvention crisis team to assist with providing counselors to comfort students, staff and community members after a high school football player died in a single-car collision.

Mayer Superintendent Dean Slaga said he did not hesitate as soon as he learned of the death to dial Yavapai County Superintendent Tim Carter to assemble his 12-member team of counselors and other professionals able to disseminate news and offer comfort to students and staff. One recommendation that was offered was to avoid an assembly, and rather approach students in individual classrooms with private grief counseling offered at various times over the course of a few days.

As a rural district, Slaga said he particularly appreciated that the county has resources at the ready to help schools manage such a crisis.

As a four-decade educator, including a teacher, coach and principal at Prescott High School, Carter initiated creation of an initial plan after he first became superintendent in 2005. During his time as principal, Carter had to deal with tragedy, including the suicide death of a student. He recognized the need to have professional staff skilled in how to cope with the impact such a tragedy can have on the entire school community.

He enlisted the help of Don Ostendorf, a now-retired licensed clinical social worker who headed the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic for almost three decades. Ostendorf helped devise a plan divided into sections with step-by-step instructions on how to handle everything from the initial announcement of a tragedy to setting up counseling sessions, organizing memorials, supporting family, and responding to community and media inquiries.

The team, either that provided through the county or by a particular district or school, is charged with assessing how many grief counselors and therapists may be needed, and for how long, and if law enforcement officials might be needed for a possible criminal investigation.

Ostendorf notes one of the major updates relates to social media. Administrators and counselors alike need to be aware of rumors and the misinformation that can be spread as truth within minutes of any tragedy.

For Ostendorf, the tips and protocols established in the plan are a compilation of best practices he has gleaned over the course of managing a variety of tragedies that have impacted area schools. The aim is to limit the chaos that can be stirred up given the fear, anger and sadness that these incidents create.

“Having a road map is really a way to assimilate a whole lot of information and reactions and intrusions that often are a result when these unexpected things happen,” Ostendorf said.

Chino Valley Unified District Superintendent John Scholl said he thinks the plan is a solid one, and appreciates that Carter and his staff are “ready, willing and able to provide whatever we need.”

Prescott Unified Superintendent Joe Howard sees this plan as a collaborative effort that has evolved from the need to respond to various tragedies over the year.

Anytime a crisis erupts, it is natural that “everyone around you is telling you what to do and how to handle it,” Howard said.

“You’re getting all this well-intended advice, some intense and passionate, and as none of us are experts, I can pull out a book written by experts,” Howard said.