By Eric Pilgrim | Fort Knox NewsApril 26, 2019
Several key leaders from Fort Knox emergency services joined forces with Garrison leaders, school officials, behavioral health specialists and family and spiritual support personnel in a table top exercise April 26 to figure out how best to respond during and after a school crisis.
Called the Crisis Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery Program, or PREPaRE, officials from the Department of Defense Education Activity Americas hosted the four-day workshop, which included three days of instruction prior to the table top exercise.
Mike Murphy, the exercise facilitator, led leaders through a scenario patterned after the Dec. 14, 2012, school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults after killing his mother. Throughout the scenario, which lasted nearly three hours, Murphy kept the leaders focused on one question he said they will need to answer quickly and efficiently in a real-life scene: "Where is my child?"
"Do you remember that question?" he asked the group. "The important takeaway today is that you have thought about it; so let's talk about it."
Facilitators divided the workshop into three segments.
Day one focused on crisis prevention and preparedness, which involved principals, crisis management teams, law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services, mission assurance and installation officials.
Days two and three brought counselors, school psychologists, nurses, and mental and spiritual health professionals together to discuss crisis intervention and recovery.
Dr. Melissa Rivers, one of the core authors of the PREPaRE School Crisis Prevention & Intervention curriculum and an associate professor at Winthrop University, co-instructed throughout the first three days. She said she has worked for years as a school psychologist and was working in the Denver area during her first year when the school shooting at Columbine High School happened April 20, 1999. Officials called her in as a crisis responder.
"That's when we realized that we were not at all adequately prepared in schools for how to respond to crisis events," said Rivers. "As we started researching how to get trained, there was a lot of community response models out there, but they didn't fit well in the schools."
Over the next several years, she and others worked to research, and then construct the PREPaRE crisis training that is used throughout DODEA. What she found was that trauma doesn't end a day or two, or even a week after a crisis.
"If trauma issues go unresolved, it can lead to a lot of negative mental health outcomes," said Rivers. "One of the things that we're doing during this training is giving students and staff a safe, structured environment to be able to talk about their experiences, their reactions; and then to be able to come together and learn coping strategies and how to support each other.
"What we know is that when you provide them a safe place to be able to do that, then they're able to resume academic learning a lot quicker."
Sean Griggs, regional force protection officer for DODEA Americas and coordinator for the workshop, said they DODEA recently adopted the Standard Response Protocol, which was implemented by many schools in the United States in 2009. The protocols consist of locking out a perpetrator, locking down a school, sheltering in place, or evacuating the building.
Part of the discussion during the workshop included the protocol, ensuring school facilitators understand it, and how it ties into installation actions during a crisis.
"That's part of why we do these table top exercises; to bring in the installation that provides the support to the school," said Griggs. "The Standard Response Protocol is built into the training."
On Friday, everyone gathered at the old MacDonald Elementary School to put all the training together.
"A time of crisis is not a time to make friends," said Murphy, at the start of the exercise.
Murphy told the crowd he would walk them through the scenario at times in real time, other times slowed down to provide for discussion. The 15 minutes of real-time crisis created by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter before taking his own life turned into over two hours of discussion among the crisis management professionals.
Many ideas, questions and concerns surfaced among them; even some pushback when Murphy suggested they may not be prepared for one aspect of the scenario. By the end, many agreed that future training, including possibly a parent-child reunification exercise, was needed.
"We are part of the Fort Knox community," said Dr. Michelle Gomez, Fort Knox High and Middle School psychologist. "If we improve the communication and teamwork, we can have a better result, especially since any crisis impacts an entire community.
"It was amazing to gain this knowledge and have the opportunity to get connected with the other agencies. At some point, we are going to work together."