For schools, grief counselors serve as 'first responders' after a tragedy

Crisis team has been called in after murder-suicide, fatal car crashes

Lakeview Elementary School principal Jodi (cq) Rickels sees students at the school off to their buses at the end of clas
Lakeview Elementary School principal Jodi (cq) Rickels sees students at the school off to their buses at the end of class in Solon, Iowa, on Thursday, April 30, 2015. Rickels worked with Grant Wood Area Education Agency's crisis team on how to students' questions in response to a accident between a school bus and another vehicle where the driver of the vehicle was killed and some students were injured. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — When two elementary school custodians died in late February in a murder-suicide, administrators at the College Community School District weren’t the only ones helping students and staff cope.

That week — as in nearly 20 other cases around the Corridor this school year — the schools called in grief counselors and other crisis managers from the Grant Wood Area Education Agency for help.

The agency’s Crisis Incident Stress Management team — made up of school social workers and psychologists, administrators, counselors, clergy members and retirees — assists schools after a tragedy, usually a student or staff death.

“They’re like the first responders,” said Noreen Bush, a College Community administrator who helped coordinate schools’ responses to the deaths. “They come to the school right away to provide care for both students and faculty.”

Team members provide communication strategies for administrators, identify students and staff who might need additional counseling and remind everyone to breathe, drink water and get enough sleep.

The group isn’t always well-known outside education circles, Grant Wood officials said.

But in cases such as the one at College Community, it can help parents, students and teachers understand and cope with tragedy and bring stability back to classrooms.

Emotional Effects

Much of the crisis team’s work, school officials and the team’s leader said, focuses on helping students and teachers understand the emotional effects of a tragedy.


That often includes educating people about common reactions to crisis and ways to cope, said Katy Lee, a Grant Wood school social worker and the crisis team’s leader.

For students, Lee said, grief counselors can provide what they call individual interventions, listening and referring students who need additional help to a school counselor or mental health provider.

That can mean “just sitting with people,” Lee said. “There’s such a thing as a comforting presence that makes a difference.”

In the College Community elementary schools, hearing about the custodians’ deaths triggered other sad memories for some students, Bush said.

“Some of them were even thinking about their grandma that they lost or their pet that they lost,” Bush said. “We just have to tell them, it is OK to be sad.”

For staff, crisis team members can lead group discussions and remind teachers to keep their own recoveries in mind.

“Teachers, they live their life around taking care of children,” Bush said. “The person they forget to take care of is themselves.”

One strength of the crisis team is that its members usually don’t have a connection to the tragedy to which they’re responding, members said.


“Sometimes it’s helpful to have an outside person who’s not as emotionally attached,” Lee said.

But the emotional effects of a fatal car accident or another death can affect grief counselors, too.

Lee said team members can excuse themselves from a response if the tragedy hits too close to home. And in some cases, she said, the grief counselors bring in a mental health professional to support them after a particularly impactful case.

All members of the crisis team have other jobs, Lee said, and many of them work for individual schools rather than the Grant Wood agency.

Anyone interested in joining the team, she said, must complete a three-day training on intervening after a tragedy. Mental health professionals on the team must complete additional training.

Coordinated Response

The crisis team’s response to a call can range anywhere from a phone consultation to sending 10 people to a school, Lee said. Grief counselors usually are at a school for two to three days, she said, but sometimes they can come back for up to two weeks.

In most cases, she said, the team is called after a staff member or student dies. But it can be involved after parent deaths or natural disasters, as well.

Besides the College Community case, the crisis team this school year has been called after a car accident in April killed five students from the Vinton-Shellsburg and Center Point-Urbana school districts. The team also responded in December after a crash involving a Solon school bus.


The team has responded 14 times each school year, on average, since 2008-09, according to data provided by Grant Wood. But so far this year, Grant Wood officials said, the team has received 20 calls — including 10 since March 1.

Officials said they were not sure why the team has gotten more calls this year.

After the Solon bus crash — in which some elementary school students sustained minor injuries and the elderly driver of a car was killed — the crisis team gave teachers and administrators advice on how to answer students’ questions.

“There’s no right way and there’s no predictable way,” to respond, said Jodi Rickels, the principal of Solon’s Lakeview Elementary School. “What we can do is put support in place to help ease all of us through it.”

In the College Community schools, crisis team members helped the district plan out its communication about the custodians’ deaths, Bush said. Administrators first told staff, then parents, and finally students.

Lee said that type of strategy can help schools respond after the feeling of chaos after a tragedy.

“In a crisis,” Lee said, “your world’s been turned upside down. People are wanting to know as much information as they can. But they also want to know that the people in charge have a plan.”

Crisis response

Here are the number of incidents the Grant Wood Area Education Agency’s Critical Incident Stress Management team has responded to for each of the last seven school years.

• 2008-0918

• 2009-1025

• 2010-1111

• 2011-1213

• 2012-135

• 2013-1411

• 2014-1520 so far

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