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Student Athlete Deaths Test Schools' Coping Skills


Another school year has begun, and before kids have managed to memorize their locker combinations, they are mourning a classmate in North Carolina.

Williams (N.C.) High School quarterback Harry Cohen has died just days after a herculean performance on the football field. The joy created by his gridiron heroics has been replaced by sadness at his passing.

Cohen is only the latest in a string of high school athlete deaths across the coutnry. Following the death of a teen moments after his game-winning basket, faculty, teammates and students in Michigan provided a lesson in coping for schools nationwide.

Sixteen-year-old Wes Leonard collapsed during the on-court celebration that followed his heroics, and died later that night of what the Ottawa County medical examiner said was cardiac arrest, related to an enlarged heart. While those who knew Leonard are hurting the most, the story has touched students and educators across the country.

Athletic director at Forest Hills Central High School in nearby Grand Rapids, Bill Kennedy said the tragedy has had an indirect impact on his students.

“It's pretty heavy,” Kennedy said. “I am not sure that it has had a direct impact on our kids other than just really putting things in perspective for them.  It is on the front page of the paper here, as we are about an hour from Fennville. Very sad situation and one that I do not envy being in.”

In New York City, the nation’s largest public school system, trained staff and emergency medical equipment are present at all 1,600 schools.

“We have defibrillators at every school, and our staff is trained for any type of accident,” New York City Public Schools spokesperson Margie Seinberg said. “We also have our regular protocol, which involves calling 911 and getting emergency medical personnel on the scene as quickly as possible. All of our coaches take defibrillators on the road with them.”

In addition to its immediate emergency response, New York City public schools reaches out to students who may be impacted by a sudden loss.

“We always have a crisis team in our schools whenever there is a tragedy,” Seinberg said. She added that the crisis team offers grief counseling and other services.

While everyone agrees that such services are critical, some educators may feel ill equipped to determine if a particular student needs additional help. Dr. Victor Carrion, director of the Early Life Stress Research Program at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, said there are several warning signs that educators may notice.

“[Students may have] problems with attention that have not been there before,” Carrion said. “So if all of a sudden the individual seems inattentive or distracted, that person may need some help. Obviously truancy [is a concern], as well as an increase in behavior problems.”

Carrion also recommends that teachers get together to discuss the issue before reaching out to students.

“It’s important for the teachers themselves to have a discussion about it,” Carrion said. “The teachers can deal with their own fears and their own feelings about the event. That way they can minimize how those fears and feelings may impact discussions with students.”

He also encouraged schools to recognize when they may need to bring in a mental health professional who can facilitate this staff session.

Additional best practices for post-tragedy student counseling include:

•        Provide a script for staff to follow when talking with students. The script should
          include suggestions for “what to say” and “What not to say.” For example, staff
          should show interest in what grieving students share about their feelings and
          beliefs, but staff should avoid using the phrase, “I know just how you feel.”

•        Distribute a list of counseling resources and designate locations where students
          access help from mental health professionals. Set up special sessions for
          students who were particularly close to the deceased.

•        Watch for warning signs. If a student’s symptoms of depression are severe or
          persistent and s/he is not coping with day-to-day activities, encourage him/her
          to get additional professional help.


Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools. Sudden death/crisis management:  Policy and procedure handbook. 

Counseling Services, State University of New York – University at Buffalo. Coping with death and grief.

Related resources

When Tragedy Strikes: What Schools Should Do


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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