The phones ring at a steady pace.

“Crisis,” Catherine Malatt answers, pulling out a pad of paper. It is a Thursday morning in early May. A principal is calling, with an out-of-control child in his office. Malatt takes notes, asking the principal what he is doing and what his next steps are. Satisfied that he knows what to do, she tells the principal to call back later and tell her how it went.

Close by and within ear-shot, psychologist Daniel Zoller follows up on an incident report about a fight, helping the school’s disciplinarian figure out a response.

After her call, Malatt turns her attention to reports of shootings that injured two CPS students. One was shot in the back several times on Wednesday afternoon, just blocks away from his school, and was seriously injured. The other was shot Wednesday evening. Both shootings appear to be gang-related.

Malatt says she is awaiting more information, but she doesn’t send staff from the crisis office out to the schools. The principals have told her that they don’t need help. Malatt stresses that every shooting is taken seriously and that a member of the team will follow up with the principal.

Another member of the crisis team is out at an elementary school. A teacher died overnight after suffering seizures. Earlier, in a 6:30 a.m. phone call, the principal told Malatt that she never had to navigate such an experience. Just yesterday, the teacher was in school.

As Malatt and her team take calls and make calls, they scroll through their email in-boxes looking at incident reports. It is their job to figure out if reported incidents merit follow-up and to contact the school to encourage them to take the appropriate steps.

By 10 a.m., Malatt has received 146 reports.

CPS’ crisis intervention team was created more than 20 years ago, as it became apparent that schools needed help responding to crises. The team is made up of specially trained psychologists and social workers that help schools get through tragedies. The unit also trains school clinicians, teachers and school-based police officers in trauma response.

But as the number of reports increases, staffing is down. In the 2008-2009 school year, a team of eight handled 500 calls. In 2010-2011, a team of five handled 1,750 calls.

Malatt says that schools aren’t necessarily coping with more crises. Instead, she says, “our work is better known in the school communities, and they request assistance more often than previously. Our schools trust us and we respond quickly and appropriately.” If needed, the unit can request additional clinicians from the citywide pool.

Like so many other units in CPS that have been hit by budget woes, Malatt says her team uses resources “strategically” and turns to outside agencies when need be. 

*          *          *

One area where awareness has likely resulted in more calls is teen suicide. About a third of the 1,750 incidents concerned a distressed child who was talking about killing himself or herself.

Megan Watkins, a crisis interventionist, says she attributes the high number of calls to awareness: The crisis team has trained school counselors to recognize signs that a student is considering suicide. 

Watkins notes, however, that few students actually go through with the idea. “Lake Forest already has three suicides this year,” she says. “We have had five.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Chicago has one of the highest rates in the country of children who have tried suicide. Ten percent of teenagers in Chicago reported attempting suicide in the CDC’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey. Nationally, on average, 6.9 percent of teens reported attempting suicide.

Barbara Shaw, executive director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, says young people in Chicago and other urban centers are more susceptible. “Where the surroundings are depressing and there is a presence of drugs and alcohol, a lot of kids don’t have a sense of the future,” she says.

Zoller notes that children respond to trauma in different ways. Some internalize it. Some become angry or unable to control their emotions. Zoller says he often has to explain to school administrators that they should try not to judge children too quickly when they act out.

One of the goals of the crisis intervention team is to have a “trauma-informed school,” in which teachers, counselors and principals learn to understand children’s reaction to trauma.

As Zoller talked earlier to the school’s dean, he calmly explained that one of the children involved in the fight might need help. During the conversation, he found out that one boy was screaming and yelling and threw over the desk.

The boy was suspended.

But with further probing, Zoller discovered that the boy was also self-mutilating. The young man’s friends told the dean that they are worried about the youth’s erratic behavior.

Zoller suggested that the next time the boy fights, the dean call 911 and have him transported to an emergency room to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

“Explosive behavior is a red flag for trauma,” Zoller says.

*          *          *

About 14 percent of the calls to the crisis unit are about a death of a student or school staff.

Zoller says that schools need to address these situations promptly to keep students from reacting in dramatic, inappropriate ways. This year, the unit rolled out a new manual for schools to use in developing a crisis plan. It includes everything from a template of a letter to go to parents about an incident, to lists specifying who should be told, when, and how.

Calmeca Elementary School Principal Frances Garcia says that having a plan in writing is helpful, but when a tragedy strikes, it is important to have the crisis team step in. On May 18, a Saturday evening, she got a call alerting her that Alejandro Jaime, an 8th-grader at her school, was shot and killed.

“This was a popular child, a child who had friends in every grade,” she says.

Garcia says Alejandro was the first student she ever lost and she didn’t know what her first step should be. “I, myself, was dealing with grief,” she says.

Malatt was immediately in touch and let Garcia know that she would have a staff member at the school first thing on Monday morning. When Garcia arrived at 7 a.m., Zoller walked in the door with her.

As the news traveled through the school, everyone was in tears, from teachers to preschoolers to Alejandro’s classmates. Zoller held meetings with the staff and then went into classes and pulled Alejandro’s friends aside to talk.

“It was tremendously helpful,” Garcia says.

In the weeks since, a place has been set up where students can go if they feel overwhelmed. Zoller continues to follow up, but the day-to-day interaction with students is left to school staff.

The counselor will stop everything and talk with students if need be.

Garcia says the school is not yet back to normal. Amid plans for graduation, school staff and students have plans to present Alejandro’s diploma to his mother and to hold a special memorial ceremony.

At the ceremony, a rocket that Alejandro built for science class will be launched into the sky.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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