December 28, 2001

Handling a Crisis Teaches Students Important Lessons

by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer

A crisis such as occurred in America on September 11 can divide us, or draw us together and make us stronger.

California's parents and teachers play an important role in shaping the lessons young people learn from traumatic events. These lessons can help prevent hurtful behavior that frays the bonds that hold us together and prevent future violence.

Through the School/Law Enforcement Partnership, a joint effort between the California Department of Justice and the California Department of Education, schools are sharing effective strategies to help students deal with a crisis in a way which will positively shape their character.

The San Diego County Office of Education has compiled "After Crisis Tips" to assist administrators, teachers, students and parents cope with a traumatic event and use the event as a lesson for growth. While these suggestions were prepared for the aftermath of September 11, I believe that they can serve as an important prevention tool to deal with any future crisis in a constructive manner.

The Office of Education recommends that administrators establish a positive atmosphere of caring and support, be highly visible throughout the day and make sure security is on heightened alert. They should be aware of race and ethnic relations on campus, to avoid groups becoming scapegoats. They should check in with teachers and staff on a routine basis and provide rooms for staff and students to discuss the tragedy.

Teachers play a critical role in making sure that students feel safe in schools and class. Teachers can share the school's safety plan with students and have a School Resource Officer or other uniformed police officer visit the classroom. They can explain the signs of stress, which may include students' inability to focus, behavioral changes, anger, withdrawal and depression, appetite changes, change in sleeping patterns and inappropriate behaviors.

Teachers can lead a discussion on what types of natural emotions may occur during or after a crisis, and help guide students to discuss appropriate and inappropriate reactions. For example, episodes in history can be used as lessons to avoid taking out anger on the innocent, such as when innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Teachers can show young people how to help themselves by helping others.

Students can engage in activities which will help them cope and learn, such as journal writing, drawing, prayer, talking to friends or a trusted adult, physical activities and expression of feelings. To assist others, students can sponsor a community drive, donate blood, raise funds for a good cause, set an example of positive behavior and reach out and be supportive of their peers.

Parents can pay particular attention to their child's emotional needs at this time, reinforce that they are safe and encourage many of the above activities. If bullying is reported, they can approach the child's school counselor to arrange a confidential mediation between the bully and the victim, with their respective parents present. Parents can assist in encouraging their children to help others who are bullied or harassed.

Most importantly, teachers and parents serve as role models. Young people look to them to see how they behave and how they treat others in trying times. Adults, by demonstrating strength of character and compassion, can help show youth how to unify, not divide, the human family.

For further information on helping youth grow from crises, please contact Wayne Sakamoto, Safe Schools Coordinator, San Diego County Office of Education at (858) 292-3569, or my Crime and Violence Prevention Center at (916) 324-7863.

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