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When Tragedy Strikes:
What Schools Should Do

From time to time, Education World updates and reposts a previously published article that we think might be of interest to administrators. We hope you find this recently updated article to be of value.

Tragedies happen. Children and parents die. Teens commit suicide. And teachers must face their students after the unthinkable happens. Today, Education World talks to educators and psychologists who have helped students and teachers deal with death, suicide, and murder. Included: Tips for teachers and administrators for handling the death of a student.

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."


Administrator Tips for Handling Death

Scott Poland, president of the National Association of School Psychologists and coauthor of Coping With Crisis: Lessons Learned (Sopris West, 1999), offers several tips for teachers and administrators when managing the effects of death in school. Click here to read suggestions on how best to assist students with the death of a student or teacher.

"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 with students.
  • 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 "why" questions.


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.



Facts and Figures

* Although school violence is rare, the death of a child is not. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 17,000 school-age children died in 2009.

* According to a CDC report, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance United States, 2009, death rates increase substantially for high school students because they engage in risky behaviors. Motor-vehicle crashes, other accidents, homicides, and suicides are leading causes of adolescent death.

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 found."

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."

Helping School Administrators Handle Death

Scott Poland, president of the National Association of School Psychologists and coauthor of Coping With Crisis: Lessons Learned , offers the following suggestions for school administrators:
  • Verify the facts by contacting reliable sources, such as police or a close family member.
  • Notify all students' families by utilizing a school calling tree.
  • Hand-deliver a memorandum to each faculty member detailing the facts if the death occurs while school is in session.
  • Include in the memorandum suggestions on how faculty can assist students.
  • Do not underestimate the impact of the death(s) on students and other faculty.
  • Provide school staff an opportunity to work through the issues (both emotionally and logistically) with other staff members.
  • Hold a meeting with faculty and parents, since they are in the best position to help the children.
  • Appoint a media liaison who will direct both the containment of the media (such as not allowing them onto the school campus during and immediately following the crisis) and cooperation with the media by providing them the information they will need to do their story.

Updated 3/12/2012