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When the Unthinkable Happens: Crisis Response in the Christian School

When the Unthinkable Happens

When the Unthinkable Happens

Parents drop off their children at a Christian school entrusting those most precious to them to the guidance, care, and supervision of others. Besides academic achievement, they anticipate an experience characterized by safety, faith-driven relational practices, and missional growth opportunities.

When tragedy strikes that Christian school—an accident, violence, suicide, or natural disaster—the simple fact that children are affected multiplies sadness, horror, and rage. Even if no negligence was present, it feels like a promise was broken.

Crises are high-impact and high-visibility events. All staff, parents, and students immediately look to the school’s leadership for direction. The community scrutinizes carefully to see if faith in God truly makes a difference in these “real-life” situations. How leaders respond when every eye is upon them offers both tremendous opportunity and serious risk for the subsequent outcomes. Reactions to the leadership will echo throughout the school and community as others take their cue from the charted direction. All stakeholders will go through the crisis with or without leadership; this is the moment to draw on everything you can in order to lead well.

Whereas Christian educators possess many skills, they may not have crisis leadership training, experience, or expertise that includes the “human element.” Yes, other continuity issues such as technology, infrastructure, programming schedules, and cost containment must be addressed, but ultimately the most important asset at stake is people. All crises are human crises. Christian schools minister to valuable children of God. Those within the circle of impact who were not physically harmed may be grateful for their own safety, but the spiritual and psychological outcomes of such events can be extremely difficult for everyone.

School cultures are uniquely characterized by people wearing multiple “hats.” The death of a student affects the same teacher in a variety of ways—“friend of my daughter,” “my friend’s child,” “my shortstop,” and “someone I just disciplined last week”—can all be simultaneous dynamics. The gap between one’s personal and professional roles is painfully breached. Because those who are charged with caring for the students are also within the circle of impact, they are often paralyzed by their own response. A predictable set of acute traumatic stress reactions (physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral) that often result can be highly distressing and inhibit the individuals and the school as a whole from returning to prior levels of function. Questions of faith and worldview emerge in positive and negative ways. Subsequent anxiety about those reactions can further paralyze return-to-life and return-to-school efforts. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]