Over the past seven years, Beachwood High School in Beachwood, OH, has been severely impacted by the untimely deaths of eight individuals—seven students and one teacher. In all seven cases in which a student was lost, mental health played a significant role.
As a result of tragic events that the Chagrin Valley Conference (CVC)—a collection of 22 high schools spanning four counties—had experienced over the years, Beachwood City Schools has put a major emphasis on mental health and made it a district goal to provide building leaders, teachers, and support staff with more mental health training. Not every district in the CVC has the resources that Beachwood City Schools has, which triggered the creation of a regional mental health summit this spring. As part of the preparation for the summit, I researched ways in which schools can respond to such unexpected trauma.
Creating a Crisis Team
The main goal of the mental health summit is for each district to create its own crisis team, identify individuals for a regional crisis team, and gain an understanding of the basic steps to how they’ll respond when a building-level crisis takes place.
The impact of the sudden death of a teacher or student factors heavily into the summit’s focus. When death occurs suddenly or unexpectedly, research suggests that it is important to centralize and formalize the mode of response. Let’s assume that a teacher died in a tragic car accident, as was the case last school year at Beachwood High School. From the viewpoint of the students, their teacher was healthy and present on the Friday before a holiday weekend; the students were looking forward to not having school on Monday. However, by the time they would return to school, they would learn that their beloved teacher had passed away. When presented with a similar scenario, there are a multitude of steps that district leaders and school counselors should take in order to best serve students, families, and the school community.
First and foremost, there are many key players, so it is important to be knowledgeable about their roles. Depending upon the district and school, the key players may have different roles, but in my district, the director of pupil services would be in charge of the counselors. They would also be responsible for organizing the crisis team and assigning roles and responsibilities for each team member. The counselors from the middle level and elementary school would be pulled into the high school for further assistance. It would also be necessary to reach out to a regional or county crisis team to further assist the school during this time. The superintendent would have the vital role of reaching out to the family of the deceased staff member to determine how they would like the school to move forward. For instance, does the family want to be involved in a school memorial service? Additionally, the superintendent would determine how to inform the staff and student body of this traumatic incident. Once the word has gotten out, the crisis team should be prepared to be readily available for all students. The building principal and assistant principal would also be critical in providing additional help to the superintendent and counselors.
School leaders and the crisis response team would have the critical duty of providing emotional and mental health support to each student in the school. The students who had this particular teacher in class may benefit from a group session to lean on one another and to process their feelings. Schoolwide counseling should be available to all students, regardless of whether or not they personally knew the teacher. All students would be navigating through the process of death, and all students need support services. Research shows that if students are not able to process their feelings, they are much more likely to suffer long-term effects. Each student will process grief differently, and many of them may not know if what they are feeling is “normal.” I learned in my research that this is especially important as it relates to minority students, who are much less likely to seek mental health support. The school counselor and the crisis response team should provide group therapy, individual therapy, grief coping mechanisms, and grief education.
Since this catastrophic event occurred over a weekend, my plan for emergency first aid would ensure that support would be immediately available first thing in the morning when school resumes. The crisis team, with a focus on the counselors, would have different groups for processing, such as art therapy, individual sessions, and group sessions with counselor-led discussions. As the counseling sessions progress, it would become evident which students, if any, need additional services from an outside agency. According to our district’s policy, there are referral agencies that are specifically utilized. The National Association of School Psychologists provides resources that may be utilized to gather local referrals for students and their families. In order to ensure that there was a decreased likelihood that students and staff would experience future issues related to this crisis, ongoing counseling and check-ins would be necessary.
The crisis team would also hold a schoolwide assembly in which grief coping mechanisms were reiterated. Furthermore, if the school chooses to do a memorial service (depending on the family’s input), this would be a nice way for students and staff to experience closure, which can help the healing process. For this event, the crisis team would lean heavily on the school counselors. Students and staff would have the opportunity to say a few words about their beloved teacher, and the crisis team could continue to offer insight as to how students and staff can continue to cope.
Resources within the school to help students deal with trauma include those focused on school safety, healthy behaviors, coping strategies for grief and death, talking to teens about suicide, violence and social media, and gifted resources. Additionally, there is parent information presentation about suicide prevention and mental health, among other mental health resources, on our district’s website, which could be beneficial for families to read and understand.
Overall, it is imperative for the school’s crisis team to have an awareness of the dynamics of the school system they serve. My building and district are fortunate in that all the individuals that support students are experienced in dealing with students and families in times of crisis. Beachwood High School staff feel confident that the community is prepared, but there is always room for improvements. It is imperative to ensure that all school personnel, as well as families and community members, are educated and knowledgeable about crisis procedures.
When a staff member dies, it is important for the crisis response team to have a collaborative plan already established so that it can be immediately referred to and implemented. By intervening early with appropriate grieving and coping techniques, students will have the best chance at handling their emotions in a healthy and conducive manner.
The crisis response team should also have an understanding of the reactions that students may have and the challenges that they may face when traumatic events occur. When a staff member dies, there are various cultural, ethical, and religious aspects to be mindful of at all times. Although students may have different ways of handling bereavement, the support team can ensure that all students are allowed to grieve properly and comfortably.
There are many roles in a crisis response plan, so working collaboratively will be the best way to ensure that students are getting the best care possible. If a cultural or ethical issue arises, such as the differentiation in religious beliefs regarding memorial services for the deceased, the crisis response team should be prepared to educate all parties involved to give everyone the chance to grieve properly per their own personal values.
Ryan Patti is assistant principal of Beachwood High School in Beachwood, OH. He is the 2019 Ohio Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@RPatti_BHS).
Beachwood City Schools Resource Center
U.S. Department of Education Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities
Crisis Intervention and Crisis Team Models in Schools