Coping with catastrophe;School management;Books

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
DUNBLANE:A PLACE OF LEARNING. Should Crisis Call: Crisis Management in Schools. WHEN DISASTER STRIKES: Supporting the Victims of Trauma and Loss, Dunblane Support Centre: THREE YEARS ON. Stirling Council. pound;7.50 each or pound;30 for full package

With memories of the Lockerbie tragedy still vivid in his mind, headteacher Graham Herbert reviews crisis management materials produced in the light of the Dunblane shootings.

Dunblane and Lockerbie: the names of the two small Scottish communities will, despite their occupants' wishes, remain inextricably linked with tragedy. Two communities which have become internationally known for the wrong reasons - the shooting dead of 16 five and six-year-olds and their teacher, and the bombing of a Boeing 747 flying from London to New York, killing 259 people on board and 11 Lockerbie residents.

As I started to read the materials produced by Stirling Council, I was struck by the similarities of these two tragedies. I was also surprised by how vividly the memories of events on March 13, 1996, and December 21, 1988, came back.

The booklets were produced for a seminar in April of this year about the Dunblane massacre and are now available for interested parties. Dunblane: A Place of Learning provides an overview, offering learning points and prompts about the preparation of emergency plans.

The title, with its obvious connotations of where the shooting happened, was not chosen lightly. The author hopes that others can learn from the strengths and weaknesses of how the various agencies dealt with the aftermath of Thomas Hamilton's mayhem that fateful morning. It provides a chronological account of the event and the activities immediately after it.

Poignant for me were details of squabbling over the monies that poured into the community as society purged itself of grief. This will polarise the various family groups for many years to come, as it has done in my own community.

Again, I found striking parallels with Lockerbie in the "doorstepping" of grief-stricken families by the media within hours of hearing about the deaths, and the seemingly minor issue of a Christmas tree for the Dunblane cemetery being escalated out of proportion as emotions ran high in the town.

Of most interest to school managers will be the booklet Should Crisis Call: Crisis Management in Schools. This is clear and concise, with blob points of pragmatic comment. Hindsight is a tremendous gift and while nobody would suggest all schools should have a plan for every contingency, it is suggested that some thought should be given to the roles of all staff should a crisis occur. A general plan of critical response is a good idea, including essential telephone numbers.

I was heartened that the emphasis was on providing a "normal" routine in school and avoiding closure wherever possible. This was the case at Lockerbie, when the school resumed in the January following the air disaster days before Christmas.

Emphasis is placed on dialogue at all levels and clear communication channels between the various agencies. There is also practical advice on how to broach bereavement with children of all ages and the possible reactions to a traumatic experience.

When Disaster Strikes was produced by the family support groups that were set up immediately after the Dunblane massacre. It is intended as a guide for social services who may have to deal with a critical incident, and is a comprehensive document, dealing with the immediate emotions of bereavement against the background of donations, compensation claims, media attention and the clamour of the community to be left alone and "get back to normal".

One immediate problem that arose in Dunblane after the shootings was that the school had only one telephone line and even when the police arrived on the scene, it was decided that the information was too sensitive to be broadcast on their open radio system. It is suggested that at regional and local level there should be resource kits available, containing a variety of equipment to provide immediate support until professional help arrives. Maps, coloured tabards to identify key staff, telephone cards, pagers and telephone directories form part of the kit.

Three Years On, produced by the Dunblane Support Centre, is an account by the staff of the specialist resource centre established by Stirling Council to offer a range of support and services to the various groups and individuals affected by the tragedy. It features chapters devoted to strategies used in the counselling of specific groups, including the immediate bereaved, grandparents and parents of injured children. The authors are at pains to emphasise that one group would have been impractical, both in terms of size and differing needs.

Several family groups also emerged from the Lockerbie tragedy.

One pertinent comment is: "Staff caught up in the management of a crisis should not begin by writing the textbook. They should be better informed." Should Crisis Call, in particular, makes a good attempt at doing just that and gives valuable insight into crisis management for schools. God forbid that you ever have to put it into practice.

Graham Herbert is headteacher of Lockerbie Academy, Dumfries and Galloway

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