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Counselors in a crisis: Lessons from Ferguson schools

Teachers received guidance in leading productive class discussions about Michael Brown shooting
Volunteers for the Ferguson, Mo. group Parents for Peace welcome back students at Ferguson Middle School in August. (Photo: Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio)
Volunteers for the Ferguson, Mo. group Parents for Peace welcome back students at Ferguson Middle School in August. (Photo: Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio)

Administrators at the Ferguson-Florissant School District in suburban St. Louis doubled the number of counselors during the first week of school in late August to help students cope with their emotions during the time of instability following Michael Brown’s death, says school board president Rob Chabot.

The district’s 11,000 students filed into schools nearly two weeks late, after widespread protests and social unrest in the area. Brown, who was unarmed, was shot multiple times in a confrontation with a police officer on Aug. 9 in Ferguson.

“We held off getting the kids back to school because everything was so unstable, and it gave us an opportunity to look at the needs of our students,” Chabot says. “Our top priority was the availability of mental health services.”

Some 60 counselors— compared to the usual 33—sat in the hallways and guidance office the first day of school, and were on call for the rest of the week. The extra counselors came from the Special School District of St. Louis County, which provides special education services to 22 districts in the area, and from local mental health agencies. And during the two-week delay, every district employee took a crisis training course called “Response, Intervention, Support, and Education” (RISE) to learn to identify emotionally-troubled students.

Part of the training involved guiding teachers on how to lead productive class discussions about the recent events, according to district spokesperson Jana Shortt. Teachers were encouraged to include the events in their lessons when applicable, and to listen to students’ opinions.

Making plans

Stephen Brock, a school psychology professor at California State University, Sacramento, says administrators in all districts should create “memorandums of understanding” with nearby districts to share personnel when a crisis overwhelms local resources.

“Our preference is that they are other school-based personnel, but carefully selected community-based mental health professionals can be helpful as well,” Brock says. “We like to see this contingency planned for, and the people who are brought to help in a situation like Ferguson to be known commodities.”

During a crisis, school counselors help students replace rumors with facts, Brock says. “To the extent that there are ongoing stressors, what we do is talk to students about how to recognize and manage the stress, and keep themselves safe,” he says. “The basic premise regardless of circumstance is to try to make the situation more controllable.”

Outside counselors who come to schools during a time of need are usually paid by their own employer, who will release them to the school for a certain time, Brock says.

Brock says that for many students, naturally occurring social support systems of family, friends and teachers are all they need to cope with a crisis. “Counselors should be part of a more comprehensive crisis-response team—all school staff members have a role to play,” he says.

What crisis response plans does your school have in place? Start an education conversationon District Administration's Facebook page.