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Team helps kids in crisis

February 08, 1999

Crisis TeamBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA /staff photographer




Real-life tragedy isn't taught in schools, but Washington County teachers are ready for it when it comes.

The school system has crisis teams that can intervene in any emergency. They are on call and always ready to help.

"We can get people very quickly into a situation," said Paul Woverton, a school psychologist who is a team leader.

Formed in 1989, the teams are volunteer groups of counselors and teachers who handle the aftermath of accidental deaths, suicides and other disasters. They offer calm amidst chaos - guidance during grief.

Even the most professional principals or teachers can lose control when someone in their community dies. Loss makes the day difficult.

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"When it impacts you, you lose the ability to rationalize," Woverton said.

The team tries to stabilize the situation so "everybody knows their role and what's expected," he said. "We try to keep the school functioning normally and appropriately."

They offers a number of resources, including "direction cards" for teachers and principals with step-by-step instructions.

Having a list handy puts people at ease. "It makes them feel much more comfortable," Woverton said.

For instance, the teacher's card includes suggestions like, "Expect, accept and allow students a few minutes to have various emotional reactions (grief-withdrawal-anger)."

There are two of the four-member teams in case more than one is needed. They've never been dispatched simultaneously. "Thankfully, no school has had crisis on top of crisis," Woverton said.

When a death or life-threatening situation occurs, the principal can call one of the team leaders. Since all the members are school system employees, they can usually respond in the time it takes to get there.

Sometimes they simply provide extra manpower as needed. They may cover classrooms, watch the doors or keep the press at bay.

But the team's main role is "providing an outlet for people to take out their feelings," Woverton said. "It's not just the event that happened that day. It's all the memories."

In the wake of a shocking incident, the team performs a "critical incident stress debriefing." It is a structured discussion designed to help students and teachers cope.

Team members are also available for consultation. For example, if a teacher discovers a students' suicide note, he or she may ask how to handle it.

It's been a busy year for the team. Since July, it has been called nine times- nearly a record, according to Woverton. He has been involved in 39 incidents since joining the team in 1991.

There's a lot of turnover, he said. It's an emotional job with a high burnout rate. "Sometimes you go home and it takes a long time before you feel ready to go back in," he said.

Team members see suffering, but they also help others heal, Woverton said. "There is no one who has been on the team who doesn't feel like they made a difference."

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