When an Entire School Is Affected

Goals of Support

The death of a member of the school community—a student, teacher, or other staff member—can have a profound impact on the entire school. Teachers and other staff will have extra responsibilities to provide students with information and support and to monitor their reactions and adjustment. Often, virtually everyone will experience some sort of emotional response to the death. This can sometimes involve strong feelings of grief among many or all students and staff.

It is important for schools to set up a system for offering students and staff support. This includes having school staff and/or consultants who have experience and skills in providing support after a school crisis and who are available to talk with staff and students in both group and individual settings.The goals of support for students include the following:

  • Normalize common experiences of grief. Anticipatory guidance helps students understand what to expect. They can hear about the range of feelings that are common in these circumstances, the ways people might express their feelings, and the ways people's feelings may change in the short and long term (i.e., the coming days, weeks, and months).
  • Help students express and cope with feelings. Following a death, talking with students directly helps them to understand what happened and to identify their feelings. They need a safe, nonjudgmental environment in which to express their reactions. In groups, they can learn coping strategies and share their own ideas. These interventions keep more students present in school at these difficult times and decrease the negative effects on learning that often accompany grief.
  • Help students find resources and strategies for coping with difficult feelings. Many students will experience straightforward reactions to the death that are clearly expressed and match the situation well. Some, however, will have more complicated reactions. They may struggle with feelings of regret or remorse, especially if they believe they mistreated the individual at some point in the past. Others may have a sense of survivor guilt-"Why should he have been the one to drown when we've all gone swimming out at the quarry?" They may feel anxious, fearful, or angry. As previously mentioned, depressed students may experience a worsening of symptoms. Students may also feel despair or have thoughts of suicide. Talking with a mental health professional with expertise in bereavement or crisis can help students with troublesome feelings find productive ways to express and cope with them. They can also find resources for ongoing support if the difficult feelings seem dangerous in any way (e.g., thoughts of suicide) or do not resolve within a reasonable period of time.
  • Clarify concepts for younger students. Younger students may have more difficulty understanding death. They are more likely to misinterpret explanations about death. The goals for staff support are similar. School mental health professionals and qualified consultants may be helpful in providing information and support to staff. They can facilitate discussions about how teachers feel being the bearers of this information, ask about their interactions with students, and offer guidance for any situations with students or parents that they are finding difficult or confusing. Teachers can take important steps to care for themselves personally at these times.

Some types of deaths that may touch a school community are especially complicated. They might involve major crises, such as a natural disaster, an industrial accident, a violent incident in the school or community, or an act of aggression or terrorism that directly affects the local community. Providing support to students after such events involves many of the same principles that are described throughout this book, as well as other important steps.

Planning for and responding to such major events is not the focus of this chapter or the book, but it is vitally important for schools. For those interested in learning more about how to develop school crisis preparedness and response plans, as well as how to train school crisis teams, we recommend the handbook developed by members of the NCSCB.

School Crisis Plans: Responding to a Death
Schools should have a school crisis team in place that has developed a response plan in the event of a death in the school community. The plan should cover how notification of a death is handled, and it should address such matters as who is notified, how people are reached, and what is said. Typically, this includes the following steps:

  • Notify and activate the school crisis team.

  • Verify the information. Check with the family, local authorities (e.g., the police or coroner), or other authoritative sources.
  • Determine what information is to be disclosed. The family may express wishes on this matter. Find out what information has been publicly released through the press or local authorities.
  • Notify teachers and other staff. An emergency meeting is often scheduled before classes begin. Teachers are informed of the death and given guidelines for notifying students and offering support.
  • Notify students. Face-to-face notification by familiar staff in small, naturally occurring group settings is recommended. Homeroom or an other class (depending on when the school learns of the death) is often a good option. It is best to avoid delivering such information in large assemblies or over the public address system. Students should all hear the same information (e.g., from a prepared, written statement). They should also be given information about support resources and offered opportunities to talk about their responses to the news. This might occur within a class discussion and by referral to a support room where mental health professionals are available. Options should be made available as soon as students hear the announcement.
  • Notify parents. Often, this is done by a letter that is sent home with students, e-mailed, or posted on the school's web site. This letter should describe the types of support being offered to students and families.
  • Notify other schools as appropriate. This might include feeder schools, where the deceased was known by teachers or younger students, or schools attended by siblings of the deceased. In smaller communities, it may be appropriate to notify all schools.

Following these steps gives schools a better opportunity to ensure that students learn of the death in an appropriate setting-that is, with a familiar teacher who has been prepared and is ready to make the announcement. Students can then be connected to support services more easily and effectively.

Reprinted with permission from The Grieving Student: A Teacher's Guide, by David Schonfeld, M.D., & Marcia Quackenbush, M.S., M.F.T., C.H.E.S. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. 2010. http://www.brookespublishing.com/

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