Fit to Learn

It is the crisis response plan we as school administrators pray we never have to implement: The sudden loss of a student. But when tragedy strikes, it is up to school administrators to provide leadership to the entire school community and implement protocols to support the immediate family, students, and staff most affected.

In the fall of 2015, a female member of our senior class committed suicide. Then, two weeks later, before we even really had a chance to mourn her, another one of our students was killed in a tragic accident. Gripped by shock and sorrow, students and staff alike were struggling to process their grief and questions of “Why?” How does a school community carry on in such awful circumstances? Here are some lessons I learned about how to deal with the aftermath of unexpected student deaths.

Inform the School Community

Upon learning the terrible news, our crisis response team—consisting of administrators, a nurse, guidance counselors, and school resource officers—met and determined how to inform our school community about the student’s passing in a way that was accurate, timely, and sensitive. Though some students and staff are affected more than others, a student death impacts an entire school community, and everyone wants to know what happened. We informed the staff in a faculty meeting at the end of the school day and discussed our plan for telling students the next morning. I created a release that was read in each of the homerooms at the same time; for those teachers who were especially close to the student, the administrators went into the classrooms and read the release. We reached out to those closest to the student and tried to offer support without smothering them.

Our crisis response team also prepared for media coverage. In an effort to protect the privacy of the family of the student who committed suicide, we did not release any information that was requested by the media until we had an opportunity talk directly to the parents. They wanted to be in control of what was released, and we respected their wishes. To protect the students, we did not allow any media networks on school property. We also prepared students regarding what they should say if they were approached by the media outside the school.

Strive to Maintain Routines

It might seem inappropriate to carry on with normal routines when everyone is recovering from the shock of a student death. But it is actually very important to maintain the overall rhythm of normal school programming while at the same time building in opportunities to grieve, mourn, and remember those we have lost. We found that a regular routine helped students to keep moving forward, even while they were hurting. This normal pattern was essential to help staff detect those students who were still having trouble coping. Ultimately, this approach helped us to monitor the most vulnerable students and ensure they received extra attention and help.

Let Teachers Talk to Their Students

Our students told us that they didn’t want “strangers” constantly asking them, “Are you all right?” or “Do you want to talk about it?” So, instead of having the outside counselors interact directly with the students, we asked them to fill in for our teachers during duty times. The outside counselors became an extra set of eyes and ears for our own counseling staff and would refer the students to the appropriate personnel for further support. It also gave our teachers, many of whom were also struggling along with the students, a much-needed break.

For faculty members who needed additional support, we provided access to external mental health professionals, and we held an informal daily debriefing for everyone to share what had happened that day and simply be together. We committed to offer this service for as long as it was needed, which turned out to be about one week. The staff members were very appreciative as they acknowledged that they felt supported and were not lost in the process.

Accept Support From the Surrounding Community

We had not anticipated the overwhelming support that poured in from citizens, business leaders, mental health care providers, and school counselors from neighboring school districts. Some sent cards, others food. Most offered resources and support. We knew it was important to accept their generosity and include them in the process, but we were not sure how to do so. To involve our community, we invited them to participate in events that were open to the public, such as an evening vigil. It was important for them to feel a part of the healing process and recognize that we are all members of the broader community as a whole.

Listen and Take Care of Yourself

In a crisis situation, our instincts and training tell us as administrators to focus on action and execution of the plan. But when a school community is grieving, the most important thing we can do as leaders is remember to listen. Above all else, try to listen and pay attention to what students, teachers, and community members are trying to say to you with and without words.

As administrators, we often forget to take care of ourselves during a crisis situation. We move from one situation to the next without taking time to breathe and reflect on our own emotions. The students in our buildings are “our kids,” and we feel the same emotions that our colleagues do, and that is normal. Don’t be afraid to express those feelings, ask for assistance with a task, or take a step back and sit for a few minutes. Doing one or all of these things confirms for your staff that you are feeling what they are feeling and that you are not invincible.

Utilize Resources

During the time surrounding these two student deaths, we were inundated with offers of help. I found it beneficial to take a step back and assess our needs prior to accepting anyone’s assistance. First and foremost, we had to think of what the students needed and where we could turn to get them help. We found that our students were grieving in different ways and needed varying outlets to express their feelings. One of the best things we did during our period of mourning was to bring in comfort dogs who would wander from class to class without being intrusive. The level of instinct that these dogs had, recognizing those students who needed them to just lie down at their feet, or be in close proximity to those who were unsure of what they were going through, was amazing. I encourage you, if you find yourself in a situation where support is needed, to consider bringing in therapy dogs.

Our state mental health agency and local grief counselors were a great source of support as well. We did not reach out to them immediately, as we wanted to assess the needs of the students ourselves before moving forward. Grief counselors were able to give guidance on what could be expected with regard to what students were feeling and how we should approach those who appeared to need support. Local therapists who integrated art were able to work with a group of students for whom artistic expression was the one way in which they could express their grief.

One hopes that they never have to experience any form of tragedy, but knowing what is available for resources, that it is OK to ask for help, and that we must take time to take care of ourselves can help to ease the pain of the loss.


Paula Callan is principal of Messalonskee High School in Oakland, ME, and has served as a high school administrator for 24 years. She was the 2016 Maine Assistant Principal of the Year.