The captain of a soccer team hangs himself. A popular student is killed in a skiing accident. Two high school boys kill
12 classmates and a teacher, then themselves. A first grader dies of cancer. A ten-year-old girl is kidnapped; her body is
found six weeks later. ...
Tragedies like those happen. But the school bell still rings. And teachers must face their students and help them ponder
the unanswerable "why."
FOCUS ON THE CLASSROOM
"I believe that most of the intervention after a death needs to be in the classroom and led by trained and empowered teachers
with support personnel in as many classes as possible," said Scott Poland, president of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).
Administrators play a key role in setting the tone for helping staff and students in the event of tragedy, he explained.
They must give all involved an opportunity to express their own emotions.
Helping students manage their emotions regarding death isn't easy, Poland advises. "The key thing is for the teacher to
honestly acknowledge the emotion he or she is feeling and to give students permission for a range of emotions," Poland told
Education World. "Too often teachers and principals deny students the chance to vent. The curriculum needs to be set aside
in certain classes and, in a small school, perhaps every class."
Realistically, most schools don't have enough counselors to help a large number of students deal with the death of a fellow
student. Most counseling offices cannot accommodate more than about 30 upset students. The classroom teacher then has the
responsibility for helping students with the tragedy, he said.
Poland bases his advice on 20 years of experience as a school psychologist and a member of the NASP's National Emergency
Assistance Team. As a member of the national team, he assisted students and teachers following the Oklahoma City bombing and
school shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Littleton, Colorado.
The most common mistake schools make in the event of a tragedy is to underestimate both the initial impact of the tragedy
and the long-term impact. "I have had teachers ask [me] the morning after a suicide of one of their students, 'Do you want
to talk to the classmates of the deceased before or after their test?'
"The aftermath of a tragedy -- such as an accident, a homicide, or a suicide, which are in order the leading causes of
death for kids -- provides an opportunity to increase prevention efforts and to reduce further deaths," Poland said.
Teachers and administrators can find detailed suggestions on how to best assist students with a death or other
crisis in Coping With Crisis: Lessons Learned (Sopris West, 1999), a resource Poland coauthored with Jami S. McCormick.
Poland says the manner in which a school staff handles a crisis or death directly relates to how well students cope. In
an article Poland published this past summer, he offered specific suggestions on how teachers and administrators can assist
students in the event of a tragedy. The article, "Managing Emotionality When Death Affects Your School," was published in
the National School Safety and Security Services newsletter, Inside School Safety (July 2000). Poland suggested the following:
- Do not underestimate the impact of the death.
- Offer emotional assistance quickly. The faster it is offered, the better the adjustment.
- Provide faculty a chance to process first. Make it mandatory.
- Schedule a meeting for parents.
- Share as many facts as possible.
- Provide opportunities for students and faculty to talk about their emotions.
- Recognize there are long-term implications.
- Set aside curriculum and postpone tests if needed.
Before meeting with students, the school staff needs to first estimate how much impact the death will have on students,
Poland said. He poses several questions to school staff to help them put the death in perspective and help administrators
assess whether outside help will be needed. The following questions are aimed at helping staff assess the degree of trauma:
- Who was the deceased? Popular or well-known individuals have more of an impact on the school community.
- What happened to the deceased? When children are sick from a terminal disease, school staff can help prepare the
students for the death. But with unexpected deaths, especially murders and suicides, staff may have more difficulty dealing
- Where did the death occur? If the death happens on school grounds, the tragedy may be more difficult to cope with.
Schools should be reopened as quickly as possible. That gives the school community a chance to work through the crisis together
and makes it easier for mental health professionals to assist students and others.
- Have other crises or occurrences impacted the school? Consider prior tragedies that may not have been resolved.
- Who was the perpetrator? If the perpetrator is a student, students and staff may have more difficulty with the
Last winter, school staff at Glastonbury (Connecticut) High School had to set theory into motion to help students cope
with the sudden death of a popular senior. School officials took advantage of a current events class that meets first period
every day and is mandatory for all seniors. That class provided the school's crisis response team (two school psychologists
and social workers) a chance to meet with all 400 seniors at one time, said Daniel Doll, a social studies teacher and one
of the teachers who co-taught the class.
The teen was killed while on a church sponsored ski trip. The church's pastor, who had been with the student when the accident
happened, told the students what had happened.
Then school staff passed out two different colored sheets of paper to each student. The staff asked students to write any
memories about the student on one sheet; those would be part of the school yearbook. The students used the other sheet to
write messages of sympathy to the student's parents.
The students played CDs of the student's favorite musicians and turned his seat into a shrine -- as they did with his parking
spot -- by placing flowers and messages on his seat, Doll said.
"We used that first period as a way to celebrate the student's life as well as a time to grieve for his loss. We told the
students that it's OK to grieve: That's what we do. It did help a lot," he said.
In addition, the school granted "blanket approval for students to attend the funeral services," Doll said. For students
having a particularly difficult time coping with the student's death, the school helped form a support group.
In a school district in central Pennsylvania, the school staff had to assist elementary school students cope with three
murders: one of a classmate and two of parents of classmates. Before those tragedies occurred, the school system already had
in place a crisis response team and protocol to be used in the event of an emergency.
The most important thing to do in a crisis is to stick to the facts, said Brenda K. Frazier, a school psychologist for
the 7,000-student Williamsport (Pennsylvania) school district and a member of the district's crisis team for those tragedies.
"Don't go with rumors," Frazier told Education World. "With the kidnapping, we worked with the police every step."
The crisis team initially went from classroom to classroom when officials discovered a ten-year-old student had been kidnapped.
The team again met with students six weeks later, after hikers discovered the child's body.
The kidnapping was "fiercely public," attracting a lot of media attention, Frazier said. "We sent home notices to parents
throughout the six weeks explaining the situation, and we prepared statements for the media until the child's body was eventually
The crisis team first met with teachers, explaining how children react to traumatic news. "Kids don't react like teachers
and parents," she said. Team members told teachers to look out for symptoms of stress and depression in the students. In this
case, students dealt with not only their grief of losing a schoolmate but also the question "Could this happen to me?"
The other crisis involved the deaths of two parents of students in grades 2 and 4 who were involved in a murder/suicide.
If a teacher isn't able to talk to students about the situation, he or she should defer to counselors, Frazier advises.
"More than anything, teachers should not be afraid to ask for assistance if they're not comfortable talking to students about
it. It's OK for teachers to cry, but it's not OK for them to be hysterical." Not handling grief well in front of the students
is worse for the children, she said.
Teachers need to be honest about their feelings and about what happened. "Teachers should tell students they don't know
why this happened, but bad things do happen," she said.
"It's also important to use the correct language," Frazier advises. "Some of the phrases adults use may confuse children
-- phrases such as 'they're sleeping now.' Tell them they died, not 'sleeping in heaven.' Kids may think the person is hibernating."