Managing critical incidents: tragedies, threats and disasters

12 Aug

(1)     Preparing for the unexpected

Schools/academies are centres of learning.  However, threats, disasters and tragedies sometimes disrupt the conditions for learning.   Governors, headteachers and staff must deal with mishaps and calamities expeditiously and effectively as and when they arise.  This is possible only if there are critical incident plans in place.   Better still, governors, headteachers and staff should be familiar with the contents of these plans and take swift and appropriate action in line with them as and when needs must.

What does one do if the school/academy is on fire? How will the authorities act if pupils on a school trip are involved in a car, plane, train or boat crash?  What if a pupil suffering from epilepsy has a fit but the school is not aware of her condition or does not know what to do in such an eventuality?   Preparation for these unusual events are crucial for the smooth running of the institution.

The Department for Education (DfE) has provided useful guidance for schools/academies on what to do to plan for such emergencies. A plan must be generic and provide for responding appropriate to the following incidents.

  • Serious injury to a pupil or member of staff as a consequence (for instance) of a transport accident
  • Serious injuries to pupils who are on a school trip on road, sea or air
  • Significant damage to school property (e.g. fire)
  • Criminal activity (e.g. bomb threat)
  • Severe weather resulting, for instance, in flooding
  • Public health incidents such as a flu pandemic
  • The effects of a disaster in the local community – such as the Grenfell Tower inferno that happened in the summer of 2019.

(2)     A tale of six schools

(a)       Kensington Aldridge Academy

Occasionally, disasters strike at the most inappropriate times – such as when pupils have to take examinations. This happened in the case of Kensington Aldridge Academy (KKA) in Kensington.  The academy (which cost the government £26 million) is sited in the shadow of what was the Grenfell Tower.   It was opened with fanfare and drums in 2014 by the Duchess of Cambridge and, under the leadership of David Benson, was building a reputation for itself when disaster struck on 14 June 2017.  Five pupils lost their lives in the inferno.

The 56 of the 60 pupils who made it to the AS level Mathematics examination on 14 June 2017 were, according to the Headteacher, “shell-shocked”. Some were in borrowed clothes.  Benson was praised for the manner in which he handled the tragedy – giving assemblies on how to deal with the aftermath of the fire.  He also arranged for the pupils to be taught in the last six weeks of that summer term in Ark Burlington Danes Academy in Hammersmith and Fulham.

In the academic year 2017/18, pupils moved to a temporary site on the Woodman Mews Estate close to Burlington Danes. The temporary academy was dubbed KAA2 and built by Portakabin.  It comprised five blocks of portable buildings and included science labs, a dance studio and art rooms.   More than 200 workers worked 24 hours a day to prepare for the opening in September 2017. The academy moved back to its permanent site in September 2018.

The experience of KAA is a stark reminder to all institutions to expect the unexpected and respond appropriately.

(b)       Dunblane Primary School

Over 21 years earlier, another school tragedy unfolded north of the border, in Scotland. At 9.30 a.m. on 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton arrived on the grounds of Dunblane Primary School, parked his van in the car park of the school, cut the cables of the adjacent telegraph pole and headed towards the door near the toilets and gymnasium armed with four legally held handguns. In the gym, 28 primary year 1 pupils were preparing for a Physical Education (PE) lesson with three staff members.  When confronted by Eileen Harrild, the PE teacher in charge of the lesson, he started shooting randomly. Harrild was injured in the arms and chest. She stumbled into the open-plan store cupboard at the side of the gym with several injured pupils.  Gwen Mayor, the teacher of the class, was shot and killed instantly.  Mary Blake, a supervisory assistant, was shot in the head and both legs but managed to make her way to the store cupboard with several of the children in front of her.

Hamilton charged into other classrooms where teachers, who had heard the shots, took evasive action and made children get down on the floor. After running rampant around the school, he re-entered the gym, dropped his pistol, picked up one of the two revolvers he was also holding, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth, pulled the trigger and killed himself.  That was, perhaps, the most charitable action he took.   Altogether, 32 sustained gunshot wounds.  Sixteen were killed, including Mayor and 15 of her pupils.

Ronald Taylor, the headteacher, rang the police at 9.41 a.m. after he was alerted by Agnes Awlson, one of the assistant headteachers to the possibility that a gunman was on the premises.  Ms Awlson had heard screaming inside the gym and had seen cartridges on the ground. Taylor thought that the loud noises he had heard were from builders on the site.  On the way to the gym, he saw the havoc wrought and arranged for Fiona Eadington, the deputy headteacher, to call for ambulances.  By 11.10 a.m. all the injured were taken to the Stirling Royal Infirmary for medical treatment.

Sir Andy Murray, a three-times grand-slam winner in tennis, was an eight-year-old pupil at the school, and his brother, Jamie, a doubles champion, was 10.  Both brothers survived the attack by taking cover in their classrooms, hiding under their desks.

(c)       Hillel House School

In the 1970s, I was the headteacher of a small, independent primary school in Willesden, Hillel House.  At a time when we were much less conscious of the importance of health and safety.  Also, legislation was not up to speed, our admissions form was inadequate and did not require parents to let us know about whether children had medical conditions – such as allergies – so that we could take appropriate action. The overarching body, the Zionist Federation Education Trust, was keen for the school to be self-supporting. Because each classroom could take no more 20 pupils, space was limited albeit teachers welcomed the idea of small classes.  But this meant money was tight so that having a welfare officer was one definition of the impossible.

The upshot was that I was a full-time teacher and carried out my headship duties in in-between times – like breaks, lunchtimes and after school activities.   I became “head cook and bottle washer” and rapidly came to learn about giving first aid – on the job.  One afternoon, during a PE lesson, all hell broke loose when Esther, a year 3 pupil, fell on the floor and began to writhe.  Her teacher called me.  I rushed to help and concluded that the child who was hydrocephalic, was epileptic and suffered from fits.  I did not have a clue about what to do; neither did I have the necessary medical expertise.

I did what I could to keep her as (gently as possible) under control and make her comfortable while the school secretary called her parents and the ambulance.   The parents arrived first, apologised to us for not warning the school about her condition and immediately gave her the appropriate medication (which they brought with them) and took her to hospital.   The child was saved.  She could easily have bitten off her tongue, for instance, and done perpetual damage to herself.

On another occasion at lunchtime, a girl of five decided to pop a sweet into her mouth after washing her hands in the girls’ toilets.   The sweet lodged itself firmly in her gullet and she began to choke.  One of her friends rushed to the office and told me about it.  I dropped everything, ran to her and without thinking (a reflex action, I would say), took the child, turned her upside down, thumped her on the back and out came the sweet.  I breathed a sigh of relief.   When we discussed the incident at a staff meeting later, my colleagues unanimously decided to ban sweets from the school premises.

(d)       Meningitis Affliction

In the 1980s, I was Assistant Education Officer for Schools.  Among other responsibilities, I had to deal with emergencies.  Come a Sunday morning, I received a telephone call from the Headteacher of a Secondary School.  He had learnt that two of his pupils had been rushed to hospital with meningitis.   While they were in safe, medical hands, what was he to do, he enquired.  I thanked him for letting me know, told him that I would seek advice from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the authority and ring him back with an appropriate response.

I rang the CMO who advised me to ensure that as many staff as possible were contacted, to have a substantial number of them patrol the entrance to the building the following morning (remember there was no internet at that time and no mobile phones), and, as the pupils arrived, his staff would give them injections to protect them from the disease.

Today, there would be more sophisticated ways of dealing with such a problem, including having a system where staff could be contacted on a Sunday.  However, the good news was that the two pupils recovered, pupils were immunised and there were no more casualties on that occasion.

(e)       Knifing on journey home

The 16-year-old lad was jubilant.  He had finished the last of his GCSE examinations.  With a couple of friends, he left his school and walked to the tube station.   And then it was that he had an encounter at the station with two other youths. The meeting spiralled downwards into a fracas and ended in the tragic and fatal knifing of this lad.

The Headteacher came to hear about what happened from the boy’s family that evening.   The school community was devasted the following day.   As education officer of the authority in which the school was sited, I went over to meet the headteacher the following day.  Being competent, the headteacher arranged a special assembly in which she broke the news.   Paeans and tributes to the pupil were read out by friends and staff.

The school community found it difficult to cope with the aftermath.  However, the headteacher and staff took measures to enable the pupils to express their grief and they also acted to safeguard other pupils as far as they could in their journeys to and from the school.

(f)        Arson attack

During the mid-1980s, my local authority, the London Borough of Brent  had a significant drop in the number of pupils of secondary school age.   Accordingly, after a period of consultations, the local authority decided to close one of its schools, William Gladstone.

After receiving the green light from the Secretary of State to do so by the following September, someone, who did not like what we were doing, set fire to the school on a Sunday night in January.   Pupils, staff, parents and officers were gobsmacked when they arrived at school the following morning.

This was at a time prior to schools controlling their budgets.   Accordingly, several officers (including yours truly) had to take rapid measures to decant the pupils to a couple of other schools to enable them to continue with their education.   However, on that Monday, the pupils were sent home.  Those who were unable to get back, because their parents were at work, became our responsibility.

Structural engineers had to make the burnt-out school safe and health and safety officers did an inspection of the premises to ensure that the community in the area were safe from asbestos.

(3)      A dress rehearsal for disaster

Fortunately, incidents such as the ones described above are few and far between.  However, having even one is one too many.   Consequently, I participated with officers of different departments, to do a mock train crash at one of its major stations to see how the different people who lived and worked in the Council would react.

We chose two secondary schools at that time, primed the two secondary headteachers with a made-up scenario.  Twenty pupils from the two schools (10 from each) were chosen.   They were acting as if they were returning from a school trip on a Sunday, and their train “crashed” causing several of them to be “injured”.  Of course, the headteacher sought the consent of the parents of the pupils, before being made to act out the scenario.

The charade revealed that there were several key staff members who were totally unprepared for such an event.  The caretakers of the schools were unavailable so that it was impossible to open up the schools and secure the addresses and telephone numbers of the pupils’ homes.   The Deputy Headteacher of one of the two schools was irritated/irked because he had been disturbed at a lunch party.

Much was learnt from “staging” the event. Fortunately, in my time, there were no train crashes in that London borough.

(4)     Useful Contacts

The government has created an incident alert team which may be contacted in an emergency at incident.alert@education.gov.uk

In addition, when a school or academy prepares a critical incident/emergency plan, governors and the headteacher can find valuable information from the following links.

Being prepared for disaster is essential to avoid calamities, if we are to keep the learning community – especially the pupils – safe.

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