As with any occupation, there is the good, the bad and the ugly. In teaching, the ugly undoubtedly has to be dealing with student death. If you have been or plan to be in the field for the long hall, then this is a subject you will have to at sometimes deal with.
The first thing to know is that every time is is different, and depending on the situation a very different reaction by staff, students, and the community. A newer student that passes away over Fall Break that may not know many people can cause a much smaller ripple than one that is the star football player on his way to Westpoint that has five generations of his family in town, but as an educator, you need to have the same type of plan in place. Even if only a few or the entire town is grieving, you don’t want to be considered less compassionate be anyone.
There are some keys to making sure you handle it not only professionally, but with grace and not to further upset your charges. Here are the six must dos I have learned from experience:
- Get the information out as quickly and as accurately as possible. Whatever the protocol maybe, once you have been alerted by either the family or authorities, you need to get the information out to your staff as quickly and as accurately as possible, even if it is in the middle of the day, or night. In the world of social media, don’t wait and think it is insensitive to send out a notice. If you hear from the family that there has been a death, but they do not want you to release details, just state the basic information, and wait to honor the details when that happens. If you wait, rumors will swirl, and this can cause a whole new panic and sense of hysteria.
- Have professional support waiting in the wings ASAP. As soon as you hear the information and have to author that awful email, get a professional staff together that can support the be grieved. If you have school counselors, have a designated spot for students to go, like the library or a conference room to talk. If you do not have a school counselor, get one in the community you know or even a member of a church that deals with family death that can help. Students and staff will need a place to go as the teachers might be grieving as well, or still need to teach and should not be expected to counsel.
- Have a designated spot for expressing grief. Provide a writing wall, card signing, or ribbon tying. Depending on the age of the student, you need to have a place where classmates can reflect on their feelings without disrupting the daily processes as much as possible. A large piece of butcher paper on a table in the lobby with markers can be a community card signing or a fence out front with a basket of ribbons for each student to tie can be appropriate for small children and parents that want to show support. Something that can be included in the normal flow of traffic but shows support will allow the process to be smoother and healthy for the community.
- Have a form of a memorial at the school. If you do not believe it is your place to do so, it is. Your school will need to say goodbye to a member of the school family, and unless the biological family does not want you to, you need to have a service at a designated time before or after school. Ask the family for permission, and invite them to come as the guests of honor. A small flag raising in the am, or a balloon release after school depending on the family wishes are appropriate examples. Have some words prepared with input from teachers and a few close students. Remember, this is the school saying goodbye, not the family ceremony, ask for permission to have the ceremony, but then do the planning and the speaking.
- Gather the student(s’) school artifacts. One of the hardest things that the family will have to do is come pick up the child’s personal items. Within 24 hours, have the teacher(s) gather any items from the student including student work and personal effects. DO NOT place these items in a trash bag, and have the secretary hand it to the parents in the front office. As the school leader, have the items in boxes available in your office, and invite the family to come pick them up when they are comfortable. If the family informs you that they do not want the items, just let them know they are available if and when they are comfortable, don’t throw them away or donate them, even if the family, at first, asks you to. Give them time to grieve and wait it out. Someone in the family will want the items.
- If there is a public service, GO!. Kid funerals and memorials are no doubt the hardest thing to attend in life, but if you are the school administrator where that child attended school, you need to go. Even if this interferes with something already planned, you need to attend not only to show your support to the family but to your grieving staff and student body. Nothing is more shameful to the rest of your school community to not show up to the service. This is a guaranteed way to lose a ton of respect if you do not go, even if the family does not notice you, or see you at the service, people from the community will.
All in all, tragically losing a student is an unfortunate part of the job as a school administrator. If you do not think that you are cut out to deal with a child dying, and the responsibility that follows, then being a school administrator is not the occupation for you, and if you think you are, I sure hope yo never have to deal with it.
Robin L. Stockmar M.Ed.
Technology Integration Specialist