Death: Dealing with Crisis at School Practical Suggestions for Educators
Unfortunately, at some time all educators will deal with the death of
a student or colleague. It is then essential that school personnel prepare
in advance so that they can respond in a timely and supportive manner
that leads to constructive resolution for all students and staff.
Notification and Announcement Procedures
Get the facts! Verification is very important and administrators should
contact the family of the deceased and/or authorities to get the facts
before providing postvention. Give everyone the facts as quickly as
possible to dispel rumors. Please verify that the student or staff member
is deceased and not being maintained on life support systems. Age-appropriate
language should be used. Acceptable sources of verification are: 1)
School personnel who witnessed the death notification from the family
of the deceased. 2) Notification from law enforcement agency.
Get help! Contact the key district administrators for assistance, and
do so as quickly as possible. The administrators will also be helpful
in interacting with the media. If the death was a suicide, it is essential
that central administrators have input into postvention planning.
Establish a calling tree: A calling tree should be utilized to notify
district level personnel as well as building staff in the location where
the deceased attended or worked. The calling tree can be used to notify
all school personnel that a faculty meeting will be held before school
to outline postvention plans. If the death occurs during non-school
hours or during vacations, this process allows staff members to work
through their own issues before they assist their students.
If a death occurs when school is in session:
- Hand deliver a memorandum to all teachers. The most frequent recommendation
is to give all teachers the facts about the tragedy and instructions
to share the information with their students, as well as suggestions
for assisting students. This memo can also invite all staff to a faculty
meeting after school. The majority of students should stay in their
classroom. Only those closest to the victim or those with tragic life
situations of their own should be sent to the school's support personnel.
- Use the public announcement system. The administrator is urged to
carefully plan and rehearse what he will say. Choice of words, voice
tone and inflection are very important and set the tone for management
of the tragedy.
It is very important to inform the parents of students at the school
affected by the death that a death has occurred. There is a balance
between providing enough information to dispel rumors and protecting
the privacy of the deceased. It is recommended that a fact sheet or
letter be sent to parents, either by mail or sent home via students.
This letter, in most cases, would not contain the name of the deceased,
especially when the death involves a student. The name would be used
in communications within the school to the faculty, and in most cases
with the students. The letter sent home would contain a brief description
of the cause of death when the facts are known, but would avoid unnecessary
School personnel, especially those who have direct contact with parents
either by phone or in person, should be given specific directions about
appropriate information to share regarding the death. The letter to
parents should encourage them to focus on the needs of their child and
not on specific information about the deceased. The letter should clarify
what types of services are available at school to help their child cope
with the tragedy. This letter should be reviewed by the superintendent
or his designee prior to distribution.
Determine the Degree of Trauma
The following questions will help the administrator anticipate the amount
of emotional trauma:
- Who was the person and were they a long-time popular member of the school?
- What happened? Murder and suicide are unexpected and violent, and thus
more difficult to deal with than, for example, a death from a serious
- Where did the death occur? A death that occurs on school grounds more
difficult to deal with. It is important to find out who witnessed the
death and provide them with counseling. Students may also reflect concerns
with personal safety.
- What other tragedies have impacted this particular school recently?
The latest death will cause other unresolved issues to surface for both
staff and students.
- Who was the perpetrator? If the person believed to be responsible for
the death is also a member of your school community, it adds to the
Roles for School Personnel
There are a number of roles that should be performed by key personnel.
It is important to recognize that each person has his or her own unique
history with regard to crisis and loss. It is not unusual for old issues
to resurface. Each student should be given permission to feel a range
of emotions. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Typically, individuals
go through a sequence of emotional reactions following a crisis: 1)
high anxiety, 2) denial, 3) anger, 4) remorse, 5) grief and 6) reconciliation.
- Direct intervention efforts
- Be visible, available, supportive and empower staff
- Provide direction to teachers about how much to set aside the curriculum.
Tests should be postponed in some classes.
- Communicate with central administration and other affected schools
- Contact family of the deceased
- Inform staff and students about funeral arrangements
- Ensure that memorials are appropriate
Counselor's/School Psychologist's /Social Worker's Role
- Be available
- Cancel other activities
- Locate counseling assistance (check community resources)
- Provide individual and group counseling
- Contact parents of affected students with suggestions for support or
- Follow the schedule of the deceased and visit classrooms of close friends
- Support the faculty (provide counseling as needed)
- Keep records of affected students and provide follow-up services
Provide accurate information to students
- Lead classroom discussions that focus on helping students to cope with
- Dispel rumors
- Answer questions without providing unnecessary details
- Recognize the varying religious beliefs held by students
- Model an appropriate response
- Give permission for a range of emotions
- Identify students who need counseling and refer to building support
- Provide activities to reduce trauma, such as artwork, music and writing
- Set aside the curriculum as needed
- Discuss funeral procedures
What if the Death was a Suicide?
If the death was a suicide, post-vention procedures outlined by the
American Association of Suicidology (AAS) should be followed, in addition
to the recommendations above. The tasks of post-vention are twofold:
1) to reduce the chances of anyone else committing suicide by avoiding
glamorization of the deceased and 2) to assist staff and students with
the grieving process. Post-vention activities provide an opportunity
to teach students the warning signs of suicide so that further suicides
can be prevented. It is also important that school personnel receive
training to recognize symptoms of depression and warnings of suicide
ideation among students well before a crisis occurs. The main recommendations
of the AAS include the following:
- Don't dismiss school or encourage funeral attendance during school hours
- Don't dedicate a memorial to the deceased
- Don't have a large school assembly
- Do give the facts to the students
- Do emphasize prevention and everyone's role
- Do provide individual and group counseling
- Do emphasize that no one is to blame for the suicide
- Do emphasize that help is available and that there are alternatives
- Do contact the family of the deceased
American Association of Suicidology, Suite 310, 4201 Connecticut Av
NW, Washington, DC 20008.
- Dwyer, K., Osher, D., & Warger, C. (1998). Early
Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools. U.S. Department
- National Association of School Psychologists, National Emergency Assistance
Team (NEAT), 4340 East-West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814 (301)
657-0270. Web Site: <http://www.nasponline.org>
- National Organization
for Victim Assistance (NOVA), 1757 Park Road, Washington, D.C. 20010;
- Poland, S. (1997). School crisis teams. In A. Goldstein & J. Conoley
(Eds.), School violence intervention handbook. New York: Guilford Press.
- Poland, S. (1989). Suicide intervention in the school. New York: Guilford
- Poland, S.(1999). School violence: Lessons learned. Longmont, Colorado:
© 2012 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East
West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda MD 20814 301-657-0270.