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Crisis Response

When Death Affects a School Community

Here are 10 tips for administrators to address the trauma and sadness.

In Fort Lauderdale in March, students and teachers were in shock following the news that a three-vehicle accident involving a semi-trailer truck had killed a Broward County Public Schools fourth-grade teacher, as well as injuring her four grandchildren and another teacher. Numerous parents, staff and students passed the scene of the accident, and rumors began flying.

At times such as this, administrators need to have procedures in place to stifle rumors and help the school community manage its grief. These tips can help.

  1. Verify the facts. The administration needs to be seen as the dispenser of accurate information. Double-check the facts with police. It may be necessary to send an administrator to the hospital to determine the facts. Do not delay, as rumors and half-truths travel quickly by cell phone and text message. Remember that you can deal with the facts no matter how tragic, but incorrect information and rumors are unmanageable.
  2. Gather your crisis team. Experience has found that the wisest decisions are made in a group. Include support personnel in this process.
  3. Tell faculty members first in a meeting and offer support to those most affected. If this isn’t possible, send an e-mail and announce that all faculty need to read it. Either way, give faculty direction for how best to support students. Provide the facts and a script of what to say. Ideally, the faculty have had previous in-service training on dealing with tragedy.
  4. Share information truthfully with students in a developmentally appropriate manner. Younger children should be protected from explicit details and horrific media coverage, but no student should be lied to or misled about the circumstances. Students need to hear sad or tragic news from trusted adults, not from someone on the street. Students need to be given permission for a range of emotions and provided opportunities to ask questions and to express emotions through artwork, music and writing, in addition to talking.

    Younger students express emotions mostly through artwork, while older students are much more verbal. Older students should be allowed to express thoughts and concerns. The emphasis at this point is usually on coping skills. Students often want to talk about the person who has died and to reach out to his or her family. The majority of students should get the help they need in classrooms, with support personnel such as counselors and psychologists coming to the classrooms to assist teachers with group discussion.
  5. Inform parents of what has occurred, and reunite younger children (up through second grade) with them as soon as possible. Parent communication needs to be consistent through either phone calls or e-mails, and schools may need to be prepared for large numbers of parents to come to campus to pick up children and to have the necessary sign-out procedures in place.
  6. Set limits for the media. Have procedures in place that shield children from the media, as they may say something they regret later.
  7. Allow the crisis to become the curriculum for a few days. Let teachers know when to return to the curriculum and especially when to resume testing. Students will let you know when they are ready.
  8. Identify those students and staff most affected. Do not underestimate the impact of the tragedy or crisis over the long term. Accept additional assistance and recognize that existing school mental health professionals have a myriad of other duties and cannot provide long-term assistance to many students. Students and staff usually at highest risk are those in physical proximity to the crisis, those socially closest to the victim, and those with their own set of tragic life circumstances. Remember that adolescents who have been exposed to trauma and loss are at greater risk for suicide.
  9. Prepare students for funerals and encourage their parents to attend with them. Guide students toward appropriate memorials that focus on the living and on the prevention of further tragedies. Students often feel a need to do something in memory of the deceased. Positive examples include starting prevention programs to prevent car accidents or to reduce violence or suicide, or volunteering in community prevention programs. Be cautious in considering permanently closing off lockers and erecting memorials on campus.
  10. Convene crisis team members regularly throughout the crisis management. Discuss what is working and what lessons can be learned for better management in the future. Ask how a crisis of this type can be prevented in the future. Ensure that those most affected by a crisis receive the necessary follow-up assistance.

Scott Poland is a contributing writer for District Administration and prevention division director for the American Association of Suicidology.