School administrators know that there is never a perfect way to communicate the death of a student or teacher to their community. But there are experiences from which a principal can learn.
Unfortunately, during the 2013-14 school year, Shawnee Mission West High School experienced the deaths of three students and one teacher while I was serving as principal. Using tried-and-true communication techniques of personal communication was soothing to most, but not in-the-moment enough for others. Two unrelenting characteristics, though, should highlight a leader’s odyssey when dealing with students, teachers, and death: compassion and strength with purposeful leadership.
Ezkial Crapo was killed in July in a traffic accident before he set foot into the school as a ninth grader. We adults didn’t get to know him, but his peers suffered from his absence all year. Andre Maloney, a senior, suffered a stroke during a football game in October and died the next day after unsuccessful surgery. Houston St. John, a junior, was killed in a car crash one month after Andre died. In addition, Tim Bishop, a 26-year veteran physical education teacher and coach, died of a heart attack in February 2014.
Needless to say, it was the most challenging year of my 26-year educational career. It was my first year back at Shawnee Mission West after having been an associate principal in the building for eight years, then leaving to run other schools in the district before I returned as principal. It was October, and I didn’t know many of my 1,740 students yet.
Use Care in Communication
Initially trained in communication, I was astutely aware that all of my actions (and my teachers’ actions) and words were influential precedents teaching students how to grieve and behave during instances of death.
Use of social media is an ideal way for principals to connect with students, inform them about events, and gain their support. That summer I had set up a Twitter account and learned the basics. @PrincipalCrain was born, and I began tweeting pictures and information about Shawnee Mission West students and their activities. This became a vehicle for communication during the days immediately after the deaths. I changed the Twitter logo to a black ribbon surrounded by gold (our school colors are black and gold).
In addition, being able to access database information from home was crucial concerning timely notifications. Numerous times my lead counselor and I communicated about emergency issues concerning students, and I was able to access student information from home to quickly begin strategizing or making contacts.
We posted notifications of the visitations and funerals on our website in a prominent place, but not as the focal point of the first page. We chose to be very timely in these and took them down immediately after the services.
Strength emanated from those who were closest to the deceased. The coach, the cousin, the mother and father, the wife—those who spoke in honor of their departed loved ones exhibited so much fortitude and strength. They chose their words deliberately, and they were the master communicators. They knew they were role models for young eyes cast upon them and hanging on their every word.
No matter how popular a student or teacher, not everyone in a large school knows everyone else; not everyone is grieving. We followed what we knew as best practices and held to the regular, daily schedule and events. Students and parents would make individual choices about attendance and participation. Of course, some classes didn’t go on as usual. Kids were physically there, but the instruction, the reflection, and the practice was on grief. Teachers consoled and cried; students reflected on the lost peer’s life and cried. Counselors reported to certain classrooms when needed.
Students want to talk to their teachers during these times, and that’s what we allowed them to do, in controlled environments. The time intervals of bell-to-bell gave a semblance of managed grief.
Think Through the Details
The state of grief is different for each student’s developmental age. Administrators and teachers need to be aware of these conditions to communicate differently with different age groups while at the same time dealing with their own grief. Younger students are typically awkward, even making jokes that older kids find offensive.
Make sure no attendance calls go home to the family of the deceased student. I know this might sound bizarre, but human error happens because systems are so automated now with student attendance. Make sure the locker neighbor is counseled, and remove the deceased student’s books from the locker, with no students around, as soon as possible.
About two weeks after Houston’s death, parents told me that the tenth graders were on pins and needles. The school had lost one student from each class—a ninth grader, a twelfth grader, and an eleventh grader. The sophomores, according to what parents were hearing, were thinking one of them would be next in the succession of events.
I talked with my media teacher—I wanted something that could project strength and resilience on the part of the fallen students’ friends and school leaders. She and the kids ran with the idea, and the result was a touching holiday video with a message of hope, thankfulness, and the importance of taking care of each other.
The lead guidance counselor—both as a friend and a colleague—was instrumental in advising me during these challenges. She reminded me to contact the student body president who, depending on the person, can lead the students in directions where the principal cannot.
While I was dealing with the student body, the head coach was dealing with his players. These young men were a close team. Just the previous season they were 6A state champions in football where Andre was an instrumental player. The coaches and trainer were suffering, too. There was self-doubt about whether they should have “caught” something.
As a school leader, it’s your job to listen to everyone—your staff, students, parents, and the community. When dealing with death, your compassion must be genuine. The strength you show (whether real or not) potentially impacts thousands in your school community. Use honest, straightforward communication as you move forward with the healing process.
Julie Crain, PhD, is the principal of the High School Academy at the American Community Schools in Athens, Greece, and former principal of Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, KS.