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Holladay Journal

District Crisis Team helps students deal with the unexpected

Feb 22, 2022 08:52PM ● By Bill Hardesty

The memorial on the side of the road in honor of the two Hunter students who died in January. The District Crisis Team had to adapt protocol the day of the shooting because of the variables involved. (Greg James/City Journals)

By Bill Hardesty | [email protected]

A long-time elementary school teacher dies over a weekend.

A school shooting happens off-campus but during school time.

A fifth-grader is hit by a car on her way to school.

Events such as these trigger the Granite School District Crisis Team. Often when such events occur, the statement is made that “grief counselors will be available at the school.” The grief counselors are the District Crisis Team.

When a crisis occurs, Ben Horsley, chief of staff for the district, and school directors, who are district staff overseeing numerous schools, are notified. From there, the District Crisis Team is activated.

“I get notified, and I start a text chain,” Judy Petersen, director of college and career readiness, said. “We always communicate everything using our technology. So I’ve got my crisis group and my leadership group. And we get everybody in those groups together and communicating and make it happen.”

The team

The District Crisis Team supports a school’s crisis team. Every school has a crisis team of the principal, vice-principals, counselors, social workers, the school psychologist, and others. They are the first to stand up.

In the case of a teacher’s death at Wright Elementary, only one member of the District Crisis Team was needed because the local crisis team had called upon neighboring schools. They had social workers from Lake Ridge Elementary, Orchard Elementary, Matheson Junior High and Cyprus High School.

Other times, like the recent Hunter High shooting, the entire five-person team is deployed. But, again, it depends on local resources and local needs.

The team has developed an easily accessible virtual folder available on all computers in the district.

“It’s our crisis folder,” Petersen said. “It has resources. It has the protocol for principals to follow, sample emails to parents to teachers, a sample script of what to say in your staff meeting, what to say in the classroom. So, we’ve gone over as much as we possibly can think of and put it in that file. And it’s dynamic. We’re always adjusting it.”

The protocol

The protocol is designed to flex depending on the situation.

For example, when the teacher died over the weekend there was time to prepare. Petersen explained the first step was a before-school meeting with administration, teachers and staff. Relevant details were shared, and a plan for the day was drawn up. The plan called for teachers to deliver the news. However, a District Crisis Team member could support the teacher if a teacher didn’t feel capable.

“You want kids to know before they get their social media because news travels fast,” Petersen said.

“We have a little script we follow,” Petersen said. “The script says you probably have people in your family who have passed away. You know of people who are sick, and you’re worried about them passing away. We talk about how that’s just part of life. It’s OK to feel sad. It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK not to know what to expect. Sometimes with the little kids we’ll use children’s books to help them understand grief.”

Teachers were also instructed to look for students who needed extra support. Those students are provided an increased level of intervention.

“We just talk to the kids because there’s that empty desk in the room. And it takes some time to process all of it,” Petersen said.

Petersen mentioned that by lunchtime, most students are feeling OK.

“In the afternoon, we flip it,” Petersen said. “After we’ve gone through our script, and we know that the kids are OK, then we turn it to a positive.”

The crisis team asks students to write cards for the family. The team models what to say.

“In this case, dear Mrs. So and So’s family. We’re so sorry about her passing. And then we asked them to write something really positive that they remember about that person, and then have them sign their name,” Petersen said. “And boy, some of the cards that we get are just so touching. We screen them because we don’t want anything inappropriate going to the deceased person’s home. But they’re just really, really good.”

In the case of an event like the Hunter shooting that happens suddenly, the District Crisis Team adapts the protocol because changes are happening so fast. For Hunter, there were two variables to control. First, the team could not enter until the school was safe, and secondly, a lot of planning and scheduling had to happen. For example, the information had to be sent to parents about the incident and the school’s response before being dismissed. Another planning issue was changing the bus schedule to allow a 1 p.m. dismissal. The crisis team also provided support to the Granite School District Police, who responded to the event.

Regardless of the size of the crisis, the District Crisis Team “Gathers the list of names of all of the students who their teachers and others identified to meet individually with a social worker. Because before we leave the school, we make sure that every parent of every student that we’ve met with during the day gets a call.”

The final action is a debriefing meeting for all people involved. The district crisis team wants to identify steps that went well and document learning points for the next crisis.

The personal cost

Members of the District Crisis Team have other responsibilities, but they drop their work at a moment’s notice.

“It takes a toll on us. It just zaps your energy,” Petersen said. “Before we leave the room or wherever we are debriefing, we articulate to each other what our plan is for self-care for when we get away from the situation. And that’s invaluable.”


Petersen mentioned how helpful the SafeUT app is for students. According to their website, “The SafeUT app provides a way to connect to licensed counselors that are ready to listen to any sized crisis or concern. Help is immediate and confidential, and as easy as reaching for your phone and sending that first text.”

Originally, SafeUT was designed for students and educators. However, the initiative proved successful, that two more SafeUT apps were created. SafeUT Frontline is for frontline workers like law enforcement, fire/EMS, healthcare professionals and their families. SafeUT National Guard is for members and their families serving in the Utah National Guard.