This blog is based on a real conversation I had with a high school physical education teacher. The details I am recounting may not be exact but the overall story is similar enough for the purpose of this blog. I will be telling the story in the first person as if I was the teacher in this scenario. Let me be clear. This is a real story that happened to a real teacher. We need to learn more about what to do if we are in this position ourselves.
During this blog I am going to give some general advice as to what to do if you are in this situation. This advice is secondary to whatever protocol your school has set up. Some schools have mental health plans and a very detailed system of what to do in these cases. That procedure needs to be followed. I would also like to state that unless you are trained you should not be counseling or giving the student advice if they have experienced trauma. That is best left up to those with professional training.
I hear the all call paging Julia (not her real name). I taught her last year and know she has some hiding spots near the gym where she goes when she needs some time for herself. I start walking to one of them when I find her. She is jittery and in an excited state. I tell her we have to go to the office when she blurts out, “I was molested by my sister’s roomate this weekend and everyone is talking about it.”
I froze. What do I do? What do I say? Luckily for me she just started babbling and everything just came out. I didn’t have time to say anything which is good because I didn’t know what to say or do. I was able to walk Julia to the office after she was initially reluctant to go. I sent a text to my principal that Julia was with me and we were making our way to the office. On the way she told me she had broken a clock in one classroom, slammed a door in another classroom, and did something else destructive in a third classroom. Eventually she had curled up in a ball under a table in the art room.
Julia also showed me her hand that was black and blue from punching the individual who sexually assaulted her. When we got to the office, both the administrator and school police officer were waiting for us to arrive. Julia told me everyone was talking about it and knew about it so I assumed that word traveled quickly and administration was looking for her to get her help.
Immediately, the destruction was brought up before we even had two steps into the room. I quickly realized my administration had absolutely no clue as to what occurred to Julia. Realizing this, I motioned for my principal to step out for a second. Thankfully, the direction of my administrators approach immediately changed as my principal said ‘I need to place a call to Childline’ once I informed her of what Julia had told me. However, I was not a part of the meeting as Julia assured me she was okay being alone when I asked her if she wanted me to stay with her prior to entering the office.
After informing my principal, a counselor was called and an investigation was opened by the police. The next thing I felt was that I was dismissed with no further actions to take, left out of the loop and not there for a student that confided in me. I felt like I had failed my former student in not being there through every step of the way when they were comfortable enough to confide in me.
Most of us have not been trained for a situation like this. I asked a school social worker and she told me about this idea of Psychological First Aid for Schools (PFA-S). Some of you may be thinking that you are teachers and not social workers or psychologists. This is true. PFA-S is NOT psychotherapy, counseling, or debriefing.
PFA-S is most effective immediately following the incident (e.g., from one hour to a couple of weeks after an event). In some circumstances, assuming the safety of students and staff has been ensured, PFA-S can be initiated while an incident is still occurring, such as in sheltered-in-place or lockdown situations. Because it is not psychotherapy, an extended “treatment,” or a stand-alone mental health intervention, any staff member, regardless of whether he/she has had mental health training, can deliver aspects of PFA-S and can contribute to the school recovery by functioning within the PFA framework. link
Here is a chart of the basics of PFA-S:
Let’s refer back to the story about the teacher and Julia. The teacher met most of these objectives naturally. They remained calm in the situation and connected the student to a counselor that could assist them. During the interview of the social worker the idea that we must remain calm during these situations was stressed over and over again. People feed off of the energy of others. If the teacher had become agitated and nervous Julia would have fed off of that. She would not have been calm enough to go to the office.
I have been trained in deescalation. Remaining calm is the biggest pillars of deescalation. The adult needs to be the rock. They must remain calm no matter what is going on around them. This is a difficult thing to do. How many teachers push in harder when students get agitated in the classroom? It becomes a battle of wills and power. Each side escalating the situation until either the student is sent out or they leave in a rage. When teachers lose their zen they lose control of the situation.
One question the teacher had was what were they supposed to do once they escorted the student to the office. The social worker I interviewed gave the advice that they should ask the administrator in charge if they could stay with the student. If they were given permission they could then go ask the student if they wanted the teacher to remain with them while the counselor or police took over the situation. If the administrator denied the request the teacher has no alternative but to leave.
One important step to remember is that everything that happened should be documented! Every school should have incident reports that need to be filled out. This protects the teacher, makes sure the right protocol, and allows the student to get the help they needed. The teacher should make a copy of the report for themselves in case they need to refer back to it in the future.
The hardest part of this scenario is what should the teacher do after they get the student help especially if that student is not in their class. The teacher in this situation has a prep and a lunch that doesn’t match with the students lunch period or study hall and they take the bus to and from school. There is no chance for the teacher to personally follow up with student. The advice I was given by the social worker was for the teacher to contact the parent/guardian if they wanted to see how the child was advancing. I personally would attempt to cross paths with the student and let them know that I appreciated them opening up to me and that I hoped they were getting the help they needed. I would not cross any boundaries and would make sure that any contact was documented to protect everyone.
I would like to state again that I am not a mental health expert. Like anything else I write do the work on your own. Research what your school has in place for situations like this. Ask your school counselors what they recommend. What I do know is that being prepared for a situation like this can only benefit you and your students.