Can We Really Manage a Crisis?

The setting: August 7, 1998. A beautiful Friday morning in Nairobi, Kenya. The faculty and staff of the International School of Kenya (ISK) had just completed its first meeting of the school year, marking the beginning of our in-service week. After a 14-year absence, I had returned as Superintendent to a school as familiar and dear to me as any, given my earlier 12-years as a teacher, principal, and school parent. It was a heart-warming welcome ‘home’ and a joyful meeting. To a person, the participants remember that gathering as a high point, filled with optimism for our capacity as a professional team to fulfill our lofty goals for the year.

That joy was short-lived. Seared in my brain is the fresh Kenya breeze, the riotous brilliance of flowering shrubs, the embrace of the sun, and cheerful chatter as I walked from the meeting to my office. Mid-stride I registered a sound in the distance akin to that of a construction site – perhaps the delivery of rebar or rock.

The sound was the bombing of the United States Embassy. When I reached the office, my Embassy radio was blaring, phones were ringing, and rumors were flying. It took some time to learn that the Embassy was the target and a longer period before the number of deaths of ISK community members had been confirmed. An alum, the father of the alum, and ISK parents including a woman beloved for her work with the scouting program and my hostess at a welcome brunch five days prior were among the victims, as were friends and associates of our Kenyan colleagues.

The effects of this contemptible act were broad and far-reaching, as many international colleagues can attest. Hundreds of schools world-wide have heightened security measures and resources prompted by the Kenya and Tanzania bombings and similar events around the world that introduced new language – ‘soft targets’, as an example – raised consciousness, and elevated the determination to identify measures to protect students within their learning environment, both on campus and off.

At ISK, the effects and our attempts to respond were immediate, if at first unfocused, not prioritized, and grounded in utter naïvete on my part regarding the myriad ways in which the bombing would impact the school.

The linkage between the school and U.S. Embassy was already strong, and the response to our obvious question - “How can we help?” - was a request for our counsellors to support the Embassy community. Unbeknownst to me (being the new HoS), we had a remarkable team of counsellors, two of whom were also new to the school. Without missing a beat, they proceeded to support the Embassy and ISK communities well into evenings and on week-ends throughout the year while at the same time fulfilling their school obligations with distinction.

Once classes began, ISK and the Embassy held numerous security meetings and briefings. Agenda items included the assignment of our soccer pitches as evacuation sites, the application of shatter-proof Mylar to windows, the removal of the school name from our buses, the implementation of a photo id system, and – deeply troubling to long-time ISK’ers such as myself – the decision to build a wall encompassing the entire campus. The original campus was nestled in the midst of a 50-acre coffee plantation. It was idyllic: coffee trees in every direction, Mt. Kenya in the distance, no traffic within earshot, no buildings within eyesight. For many - including alums - constructing a wall signaled a shift in school culture from very open and inclusive to closed and insulated.

While faculty/staff and parents resigned themselves to new protocols for car stickers and the irritant of wearing badges on campus (rankling for some who had considered the school home for years), the wall was a different matter. It prompted a great deal of emotion, mostly anger, and became pivotal to conversations about our school culture (more below). Was the primary function of the wall to keep people out or to keep us (aka the privileged) in? There had been a real sense of sharing the space, with local residents coming on campus to collect firewood, play soccer/football, attend our tag sales and other events. For some, the wall symbolized a huge ‘Keep Out’ sign. Ultimately, we devised some opportunities for local community access, and the anger morphed to resignation. This decision, however, cemented the advent of an omnipresent security lens through which all school operations have been viewed since August of 1998.

Back to the opening of school. There were a number of immediate consequences which deeply affected the school year. They included the August resignation of one teacher who returned to the States with her family; the choice of a teacher who had not yet arrived to withdraw her contract; the decision by numerous families to either delay their move or not return to Kenya, thus significantly lowering projected student numbers; my realization that the school did not have reserves to support a severely modified enrollment; and the resulting dramatic budgetary shortfall.

Blessed with a strong, supportive Board with deep roots in the community, inspired by an extraordinary, principled, and pro-active leadership team, and buoyed by an empathetic, understanding faculty/staff, we sliced and diced line items in the budget, located and shared instructional resources tucked away in cabinets, and agreed that there would be no salary or benefit increases for the following year. Teachers were offered the opportunity to leave mid-year or to depart at the end of the school year while still under contract. In retrospect, there was something almost spiritual about the bonding which developed and the common commitment to ensuring a positive environment for the students despite the turmoil surrounding them. The faculty and staff were exemplary in their concerted efforts to make our campus a warm, welcoming, safe, healing space. As small gestures of our understanding and appreciation, the Principals and I hosted regular social functions which offered relaxing venues away from the daily intensity of our work together.

Despite our best efforts, a skittishness pervaded the community as if anticipating the next tragedy while still absorbing this one. Class coverage was a challenge, as occasionally teachers who had lost friends needed a mental health day or a brief time out. Students acted out in ways that made sense within the context of what they were hearing at home as well as coping with the absence of friends who did not return to school without any closure. Some parents were struggling from survivor’s guilt while grieving the loss of friends and co-workers; we were particularly vigilant with their children.

But it wasn’t easy. In 1998 there were far fewer resources accessible to school communities on topics such as terrorism, student well-being, and post-traumatic stress than there are today. With our strong leadership and counseling team and occasional support of outside experts, however, we did what we believed was the best we could: we modified the professional development plan both to provide opportunities for the adults to work through their stages of grief as well as to generate action plans to support students of all ages cope with disturbing news cycles, understand their emotions and needs, and identify the best means to address their anxiety. One focus – something which was new for most of us – was to explicitly address the danger of demonizing a cultural or religious group. These efforts to provide social/emotional support and abide by the core values of the school occurred in group/class counseling lessons, scheduled assemblies, parent gatherings, and in private consultations. And yes, we deliberately took advantage of teachable moments, which occurred with great regularity throughout the school year.

We hosted, attended, and spoke at multiple memorial services and sought opportunities to contribute to the greater Kenyan community, as over 200 Kenyans had died in the bombing. There was not a day when we forgot the horror of what happened and how it impacted the world beyond our campus. Even as our primary responsibility was as care-takers of the community’s children, we were mindful and respectful of our role in the larger community. It was important to ensure that our communications about the tragedy did not reference only the American community, and our service projects extended to support some of the local families affected by the bombing.

A note about communication: it is stunning to realize that the bombing occurred almost a full 20 years ago. Difficult to believe in 2018, but we did not have portable devices other than clunky two-way radios which we used for bus duty or patrolling the campus. No SMS, no easy digital access to families – we were still constructing old-fashioned telephone trees (which were not yet in place when the bombing occurred). Oddly enough, this made communication easier in some ways, because we had a greater capacity to manage the message. Today, our communication tools access more people more quickly, but the message must be especially targeted and clear in order to rise above the surrounding chatter.

So, ‘how to emerge stronger from a school crisis’? Certainly the need for structures, plans, and reliable processes that can relieve the stress of constantly reinventing the wheel is a priority. It is important that school leadership convey a sense of calm while guiding and supporting community members in orderly, transparent ways. With this in mind, lessons learned through my experience at ISK and elsewhere include but are not limited to the need for:

  • ➢ a structurally sound, secure campus
  • ➢ clear communication channels including a way to distinguish an emergency message from others, designated spokesperson(s), and current family and faculty/staff lists
  • ➢ emergency procedures tailored to the individual school (rather than generic)
  • ➢ structures for different eventualities (e.g. community counseling, off-site and/or on-line learning)
  • ➢ policies (e.g. flexible leave, counseling) to support faculty/staff experiencing grief or trauma
  • ➢ a reduction in force (rif) policy
  • ➢ documented links with community support resources
  • ➢ financial reserves based upon formal Board policies
  • ➢ formalized legal representation
  • ➢ a policy addressing appropriate/acceptable campus memorials – trees, plaques, etc.

Regardless of the established formal policies and procedures, however, the embodiment of school culture, is really what defines and guides a school in a crisis situation. This is our most important role as Heads of School. As we know, values, symbols (e.g. ISK’s new wall), rituals, and stories help to define a culture. In a case study such as this one, the bombing becomes a pivotal story and how the school leads and the community deals with the crisis are forever woven into that story.

I believe schools that emerge stronger after a public crisis share the following:

  • ➢ An unequivocal focus upon students and their well-being
  • ➢ Trust that leadership has the best intentions and will work with others to find solutions
  • ➢ Strong, effective teamwork
  • ➢ Empathy which is modeled and encouraged
  • ➢ Adherence to the core values of the school
  • ➢ Open, transparent, inclusive communication within clear parameters
  • ➢ One public voice from the Board and school leadership
  • ➢ Support for students and faculty/staff for as long as it is needed
  • ➢ Engagement of community members in identifying opportunities for mutual support
  • ➢ An atmosphere within which constituents feel safe to express feelings and ask questions
  • ➢ Celebrations of shared accomplishments and the resilience of the community

Back in the day, dealing with a school crisis, whether on the grand scale of a bombing or on a private matter no less important to the person in distress, was never addressed in graduate school or even in a conference setting. This has changed. It is sobering that so many friends and colleagues in the international school world have developed expertise in what has been designated Crisis Management.

Because there are so many human variables and external forces involved in a crisis, I believe we can never know its full impact on individuals in our schools. We can only truly manage some aspects of such an event: we are coping with a crisis rather than managing it. Regardless, the process is exhaustive and exhausting, yet the bonding a school community can experience on the healing journey can only contribute to a stronger, more principled school better prepared for the next unsettling event, should one occur.

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