Handling critical incidents

Written by: John Rutter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Handling a critical incident in your school is one of the toughest challenges of headship. John Rutter discusses how he managed when a pupil brought a knife into his school

My heart sank as soon as the pupil bolted out of school with his bag – it looked as if we may have a fairly major incident on our hands.

Having challenged him over a report from another pupil that he had a knife in his bag, it seemed unlikely he would have done a runner if he had nothing to hide.

By the time he returned protesting his innocence 10 minutes later the police had arrived – along with his parents – and interrogation led to confession and the uncovering of the offensive weapon in a bush down the road outside of the school.

The fact that it looked more like something Rambo would use than the penknife I was expecting was not lost on his father, who collapsed gripping his chest until he managed to locate his angina pills.

Our local community beats officers and I exchanged glances and wondered who would be the lucky volunteer called on for CPR but, luckily, it was a quick recovery.

Back in school the decisions on next steps were quite easy. The police took statements and escorted the pupil and his family out of the building to be charged down at the station.

From the school’s side, he had already been informed there would be a lengthy exclusion (suspension) before he came back to school. The time would come to decide on the conditions that would be applied for readmittance to take place, but we promised our support and the family were told we would be in touch.

From the immediate side of things everything was fairly cut and dried. The situation had been dealt with quickly and conclusively and there had been no harm caused. The police would investigate further and there would be referrals to the Youth Action Team for follow-up. The school would continue to liaise and provide work at home for the pupil to complete. All loose ends would soon be tied up.

However, I knew this would be an incident that could grow arms and legs and would not be going away any time soon. Only months before, a teenager had died after being stabbed at a school in Aberdeenshire and pupils, parents and staff would be on a high state of alert with the perception that something similar could have happened in our school.

While there were procedures to follow according to the council’s critical incident policy these did not cover what was perhaps the most important part of how to deal with the fall-out – protecting relationships and ensuring that everyone involved in the school felt safe and secure.

So what were the lessons learnt on how to deal with the aftermath of such a critical incident?

Talk to staff at the first available opportunity

Next morning I called all staff together for a meeting at break time. I gave a full and detailed account of the incident, told everyone that the police were very pleased with the way it had been handled, and assured them that at no point was there any indication that any of the pupils or staff of the school were in any danger.

Then I asked for questions and concerns in the knowledge that a good discussion was needed for staff to air their views.

There were understandable worries. Some seemed to forget this was not a regular occurrence in the school and saw it as a sign of slipping disciplinary standards (for which there was no evidence).

One brought up another incident that had happened a year previously and asked what I was doing to protect staff. Many questioned the role of the local authority and how they were involved.

One concern expressed by a couple of staff was whether the pupil should ever be allowed back in the school again. I talked of the responsibility we had for inclusion, that it was unlikely we would have grounds for a permanent exclusion and that, even if we did, this would not be the best way forward.

This pupil was our child, had shown no previous sign of poor behaviour and may never do so again. There were calls for an example to be made of him but I stressed that this is not the way we worked as a school.

Ultimately the meeting was hard with plenty of dissent and questioning but it was the right way to move on – staff need the opportunity to talk through issues in a public forum and, even though they may not agree with the action taken, most will recognise the difficulties in deciding how to proceed and will appreciate the honesty of their senior leaders.

Figure out what to tell the parents

By the morning of the day after the incident it was obvious that many pupils – though not as many as may have been imagined – knew the gist of what had taken place. Before rumours spread through the local community it was important that parents be informed, even if little detail could be given.

Before pupils went home, I issued a letter saying there had been an incident in the school which required the intervention of the police but that it had been dealt with satisfactorily and there had been no indication that any of their children had been in danger.

Needless to say the letter caused a great deal of gossip, but most of our pupils had no idea to what it referred. The majority believed it was a call to parents for support in tackling a spate of false fire alarms which had recently been making the rounds of schools in Inverness.

As luck would have it, a Parent Council meeting was scheduled to take place that evening so there was an opportunity to give a more detailed explanation of what had happened.

Most parents were annoyed – not with the school but with the fall-out they anticipated would come from the press and from parents of children at other local schools. They were very supportive of staff and very keen to do all they could to maintain our good reputation.

Tell the press nothing

Working for the local authority there should always be corporate communications available to deal with enquiries from the press.

After a sleepless night I was expecting a good deal of queries in this regard by the next morning and I was not disappointed. Previously friendly journalists rang up wanting off the record comments and there were camera crews from STV and the BBC hovering around outside the school gates. All were told to talk to either the council or the local police who had released a fairly bland statement earlier in the day.

There was, as it turned out, little to report and only one of the local papers saw fit to run the incident as a front page – with very little content or comment – the next morning. Much to my relief, most relegated it to an inside left-hand page.

Be sensitive to events in the days that follow

Importantly, after dealing with such an incident you will be on a heightened state of alert for the following few weeks (possibly months, depending on your own school context).

So, for instance, the bushcraft session I had meticulously planned for a small group of our vulnerable pupils the following week had to be substantially modified. Sticking to the original plan – with pupils issued with brand new knives to do a bit of whittling in the forest – would have been a seriously bad idea.

I could see the headline “School of Knives” writ large across the nationals and the incident could have taken a distinctly more negative turn. Instead we built shelters and tied knots in the woods.


Coping with a serious incident of the type we went through can be difficult. It will be all-consuming for several days, you may not sleep much and you may well feel quite alone with the responsibility of your role.

Remember to rely on the good relationships you have spent time building up, do not attempt to gloss over or trivialise matters and ensure everyone knows that you will do all you can to ensure their safety and that their concerns are listened to.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2oPn8oi


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