Saturday, August 22, 2009

Harrison High School's Football Plane Crash

From time to time I am interviewed for some newspaper or magazine story about school safety. The reporter always asks something like, "What is something schools might not think of to do?" and I always say, "Prepare for the fact that bad things are going to happen no matter what you do, and figure out how they're going to respond." Thus far, no reporter has printed that, because it is not what people want to hear. People in the school safety business, and parents who want their kids to be safe, want to hear about metal detectors and buzzer system and closed circuit TV. They don't want to hear that all of that can't prevent traumatic events from happening at a school.

I bring this up, because last night just after 8 PM, a bi-plane crashed right next to the football field at Harrison High School in Harrison, OH during half-time of a scrimmage, killing two people. Witnesses report that the plane appeared to be heading directly for the field before it did an abrupt nosedive. There is some speculation that the pilot may have intentionally gone straight down when he realized he was going to crash into the crowd of between 1,000 and 1,200 people.

There is no possible way that the school could have prevented this from happening. All the metal detectors in the world cannot keep a small plane from crashing, and they certainly cannot heal the trauma experienced by a high school kid looking up in the sky and realizing there is a very good possibility that he or she is going to die. You can have closed circuit cameras, but they won't obliterate the memory of seeing someone on the verge of death die right in front of you after the crash.

Still, many school districts do not have a plan in place for dealing with trauma on their campus. Most don't even have a plan for the more likely eventuality that someone in the community will die suddenly in a car accident or the like. And after the fact is really not the time to be trying to make good decisions with no guidance and no training. You may be thinking that most schools have counselors or social workers, and that is true. Very few school counseling or social work educator programs have any coursework, and certainly not required coursework, on trauma. And I hope we can all agree that helping kids make a college or career plan is a different skill than talking to them about being terrified they were going to die.

If this happened in my district, we have Critical Incident Stress Management teams to assist. If it happened in my county, and the district knew to make the call, they could call in our community-based team. In my opinion, this is a second choice in this instance for two reasons. First, the community team is going to have it's hands full with people from the families of those who died, the people at the airport, and possibly the spectators who were not associated with the school. Second, on our county team there is exactly one educator (me). Many community teams only have mental health professionals. And really, you want someone who knows schools from the inside to help you figure this out. Peer response isn't just for first responders.

I don't know what the folks in Harrison have done or will do to support their community. I do know that they circled school buses around the scene to limit what could be seen from the field. I also note with interest that they quickly made the decision to continue with the football game despite the fact that the rescue and recovery operation was going on less than a quarter mile away. This probably surprises most people, but it actually was a good idea. As it turns out, because it was halftime the players were busy meeting with their coaches and probably saw the least and hence were the least traumatized. If they can manage to play, continuing with the game is a strong counteraction of the natural feeling of traumatized people that the whole world has just come to an end. It gives people some anchoring in normal life. And, frankly, that soon after the crash no one who was really affected was really ready to talk about it anyway. If they could have managed to get a little crisis management briefing at the end of the game, that would have been ideal, but it may not have been possible.

I greatly feel for my administrator colleagues down in Harrison. Monday is going to be an interesting day at Harrison High School. I hope they're ready.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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