Resilient Together: Building a New Simulation on Crisis Response and Postvention in Schools

Resilient Together: Coping with Loss at School is an interactive role-play simulation to prepare schools for responding to a death in the school community. Teachers and administrators learn key elements of a crisis response plan, including postvention, and best practices for communicating with students and colleagues impacted by a loss in the school. For more information about the development of this simulation, we encourage you to access our on-demand webinar presentation here.

Thank you to Scott and Rich who took time out of their busy schedules to speak with us. 

Tell us more about your backgrounds and what led you to become subject matter experts on topics like school crisis and suicide intervention and postvention in schools.  

Scott Poland: I went to work in Texas at a large school district, and I was the director of psychological services when in the first semester three students died by suicide. The superintendent called me and said, “Scott what are you going to do about this?” “I don’t really know.” “Well you better figure it out.” And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing now for 38 years. And along the way, I’m sorry to tell you we’ve had more tragedies. But I became known locally, nationally and then even internationally for responding to tragedies in schools. I hear from somebody every day who wants some advice about responding to a tragedy in schools. And I’ll email, I’ll call back, if there’s anything I’ve ever written, I’ll send it to you. And that’s given me quite a volume of experiences.

Rich Lieberman: I survived being a school psychologist for over 40 years. So that means I’ve had a lot of opportunity to follow passions. I was a school psych for Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the second largest school district in the United States. In 1984 we had approximately a million kids. There was a tragic school shooting at an elementary school and LAUSD did not have a crisis plan in place. We learned that if you don’t have a plan in place, people descend on your district to help.

The loss was traumatic to the school, the community in general and the school district. So I was part of the development of a small grant that developed the Suicide Prevention Unit, that was going to be in place in over 1200 schools of LAUSD. In a district that size you want to make sure the people on the left side are doing the same thing, following the same procedures, as the people on the right side. I coordinated Suicide Prevention Services for 25 years. Being the only program of its kind, we’ve got a lot of national attention. That’s why I have had the opportunity to co-author some best practice chapters, and contribute to some Suicide Prevention Resource Center publications including the toolkit [After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools]. Now sadly because suicide rates are increasing, since 2007, I’ve worked with a number of school districts that have experienced clusters of youth suicide.

Why do you think right now preparing for a loss in schools is such an important topic?

Scott: Unfortunately, every school has had to deal with the death of a staff member or a student. Traveling around the country and presenting, all schools have what I would call a skeleton in the closet. Something sad happened. I don’t want to make them feel bad, but the part that’s missing is to sit around the table and say, “What do we do? What worked? What didn’t work? What’d we learn?” When we tragically have to deal with another school death, how could we respond better, and then very importantly, is there anything we can do to prevent the tragic deaths of kids? #1 is an accident, #2 is a homicide, #3 is a suicide across all ages of children. But when we focus in on teenagers, suicide is the second leading cause of death for them. So it’s about prevention and better planning.

Rich: In 1986, suicide was the #3 leading cause of death for just high school kids (15 to 19-year-olds). Today it is #2 for 10 to 24-year-olds. We have seen the rate increasing steadily since 2007. Responding to loss is critical for schools, school mental health personnel, and school administration to learn how to proceed. Schools are going to deal with loss – the stats are evident. 65% of kids that die annually will die from either an accident, suicide or a homicide. We have known for a long time, school psychologists, but now how we cope in the aftermath of loss is going to be a part of any school’s response. When it is a specialized response after a death by suicide, how we respond can actually increase or decrease the chance of another one happening. So we really have to learn the best practices for how to respond.


Why might a school need a solution like Resilient Together?

Scott: I believe the simulation has so many advantages because it makes someone feel more like a part of something. They’re learning. Having presented thousands of presentations, I think too often it was just me talking. And what I do today is I try to include role play. I’ll demonstrate something, then I’ll divide them into small groups and give them a chance to practice. So I think that’s one of the key things about Kognito’s products – is that it’s much more of a hands on approach instead of just listening to someone talk about what you should do.

Rich: Staff is inevitably important. And after a suicide occurs, our first goal is to prevent the next one. Everybody plays a role in suicide prevention, and teachers play a very critical role because they have connections with the students and that’s incredibly protective. Teachers are part of getting students the information, getting them resources that exist in the community or services in school, and most importantly, identifying kids that need follow up. A simple validation by the teacher of crisis reactions that kids are experiencing and the reassurance that these are normal types of responses to the kinds of event they went through – it’s very powerful to a student. So they help normalize a lot of the initial crisis reactions.

What was involved in the process of working with Kognito to develop this simulation?

Scott: It was very exciting and very rewarding. Everybody that I’ve worked with at Kognito seemed so sincerely interested in the experiences that we’ve had, and curious about what we can glean to make this product the most meaningful for school personnel. And, for the school personnel who view it to realize this was done after very careful process, that was examining and learning from practical experiences. One of the things I’ve learned from presenting a lot is people really pay attention because of the wealth of experiences that I’ve had. And I believe that’s part of this project that is going to definitely come through.

Rich: This was a lot of fun. In terms of the kinds of projects I’ve done for prevention over the years, Scott and I jumped at this, and mostly because we seriously need to get materials like this out to the schools. Many school districts have no idea what the After a Suicide toolkit is. And it has such incredibly valuable suggestions. Working with Kognito to help advance the skills that are necessary with school staff…it was fun being the writer and being the consultant to help guide some of the best practices out there.

How do you think this simulation is going to make a difference in schools?

Scott: School personnel are challenged by a multitude of tasks they’re supposed to take care of. The primary mission is of course academics. But when a tragedy occurs, that impacts learning and we really need to set aside the curriculum for a period of time. Sadly, most schools are going to deal with the death of a student or a staff member in the very near future.

The simulation helps with making the time – making sure we have a crisis team, everybody knows their roles, and that we have some things written out about how we’re supposed to respond. And that we’re ready and we respond quickly. Helping the staff first, then we help the students.

Rich: I like the interactive part. Scott and I were very proud to unveil the simulation, by clicking around. It was insightful, it’s giving you feedback of you’re moving in the right direction, the kinds of questions that you’re asking. I love the approach, in terms of the interactions…if you choose this question, you see the specific reaction. That kind of deepens the learning experience.

Some teachers are not comfortable with mental health. There is a tremendous stigma about intervening. One of our challenges is going to be to get the teachers to sit down for the amount of time it takes to go through the simulation. Once we get them, the simulation helps build skills. And they’re all going to think of kids on a personal basis.

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