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The Critical Incident Debriefing Team

The Critical Incident Debriefing Team—A Centralized Response to Schools in Crisis

by Cherly Hiett, Supervisor of Student Support Services Prince William county Public Schools, Manassas, Virginia

Coping with crisis is never easy. Accidents, suicide, acts of violence, natural disasters and death affect both students and staff within our schools. Recognizing that school safety dictates anticipation of potential problems and development of a coordinated response to minimize stress and disruption following a critical incident, Prince William County Public Schools (Manassas, Virginia) adopted a crisis management plan in April, 1999. A significant crisis will certainly have a profound emotional impact on the students and staff of the affected school(s). Therefore, a section of the crisis management plan must be devoted to post-crisis counseling, to include a series of guidelines developed by the Student Services Department to assist school staff in preventing further psychological trauma during response to a critical incident.

While a school’s crisis team is always the first level of response, additional support from a district-wide perspective is often needed. High schools, with a large student assistance staff, are usually better equipped in terms of staff numbers to handle a crisis within the school. On the other hand, elementary schools with a traditionally smaller staff are often in greater need of assistance. In recognition of this potential need, in December, 1999, all Prince William County Public Schools Student Services professionals were invited to participate in the development of a centralized critical incident response team. Though several years prior, the Student Services Department supported a bereavement team for students and staff, the group had since become inactive. There was now an interest in developing a broader
mission for a crisis response team, noting not only the anticipated individual needs of students and staff members, but also potential traumatic incidents such as Columbine.

Today’s Critical Incident Debriefing Team (CIDT) is a group of specially trained school staff who are available to schools for assistance and support in crisis situations. Comprised of school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, student assistance program specialists, and school nurses, the team’s mission is to facilitate the normal grieving process by providing support, education, counseling, and resources for staff members and students. The CIDT is completing its third complete year of operation. During this period, the team has developed response protocols, trained members, and compiled a response handbook containing many resources for use by team members responding to a crisis situation, in addition to publicizing the team’s services to the school and community.

The Critical Incident Debriefing Team continues to be a viable means of support to schools in times of crisis. The team has actively responded to many requests for assistance from school-based administrators to include several teacher and student deaths and has offered support and resources to school staff in the wake of September 11, the sniper attacks in the fall of 2002, and during the recent war in Iraq. Sensitive to the ever-changing needs of the school community, the team will continue to revise its procedures and protocols as necessary in order to maintain its responsiveness to the needs of students and staff within our schools.