Following the sudden passing of high-school basketball star Wes Leonard, schools may be wondering how they should respond to similar tragedies. Education World asked Victor Carrion, M.D., director of the Early Life Stress Research Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, for some advice.
Dr. Carrion’s research examines the interplay between brain development and stress vulnerability and helps develop individual and community-based interventions for stress-related conditions in children and adolescents.
EW: Following a tragic student death, what is the immediate impact on classmates?
Dr. Carrion: Let me expand it a little bit to include the families and the parents and the staff of the school, since a lot of what young people will do is see how adults react.
First of all, most of the children will do well and this will not have any significant impact on their development. Some individuals will go through the normal stages of grief. For other individuals, this grief will be really marked and they have a risk of really developing depression. Others could have post-traumatic reactions.
All of that is going to mainly depend on three factors. One is the acuteness of the event. In this instance [the Michigan high school tragedy] it was very acute and unexpected, so that is significant. Then we need to consider the severity of it, and in this instance once again it was pretty severe. Then the other factor is closeness. How close were you to this individual?
Even with the acuteness, the severity and the closeness, many individuals will do well. However, other individuals—and this applies to both children and adults—have certain factors in their histories that are going to put them more at risk to have that depression reaction or that post-traumatic reaction.
EW: What resources can schools offer to help grieving students?
Dr. Carrion: I think it would be good for schools and school districts to have a strong relationship with local and regional mental health services. These professionals usually have disaster preparedness programs that they can help the school implement.
In addition to bringing several counselors in, schools can offer a more structured setting for mental health in the region—for example, services can be offered at a nearby hospital.
Something that would be helpful for everyone is having a debriefing, to allow staff and students to talk about what happened.
The group can continue to evaluate how they are reacting after the debriefing. It is during that time that staff can identify those individuals who may need more support.
What happens is that sometimes kids can start seeing cues and triggers as negative. So for example, kids may start avoiding basketball or things associated with the event.
A school may want to be flexible, maybe cancel the exam they were going to give that week. Schools can’t become too loose, however, since then kids feel that adults are not controlling the situation and protecting them.
EW: How can teachers broach the topic in class? Should they?
Dr. Carrion: Maybe not every teacher in every classroom needs to address it, but staff can come up with a plan where they can make sure that every kid has the opportunity because in one of their classes it has been discussed. There may also be some staff members who may be better at doing this than others, and when staff come up with their plan, they can identify who those people may be.