Any act of violence causing death within the school setting or community involving students can be difficult for students and faculty. Currently, youth violence is one of the greatest crime problems that any community can face. When the violence happens in a school setting it can have a strong effect on the entire school community. When the death occurs because of a purposeful act of violence, the very foundations of routine, safety and security are put into question.

Surviving students and faculty both mourn the loss of classmates, teachers or contemporaries, and are faced with addressing and understanding “Why” the circumstance occurred. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen to this person? Why am I still alive? There is a very real loss of safety and well-being.

What is School Violence?

Acts of violence do not have to occur on the campus of the school to have an impact on students. Violent acts off school grounds or campus can involve teachers or students and have a strong impact upon the school community.

While acts of shooting violence in school are not commonplace, they pose a significant challenge for school administrators, teachers and leaders. Statistics from the Department of Education show that in the decade of the 1990’s, 39 incidents of mass violence occurred on school campuses, resulting in 76 deaths and 107 injuries. During the first decade of the 2000’s, the number increased to 49 incidents, with 87 deaths and 120 serious injuries.

Who is Impacted by School Violence?

Violence at school can be seen as an emergency in the school setting. Many schools have policies formed to structure behavior and procedures to be followed by staff and students in the event that something should occur.

As with grieving any death, it is most likely that the mourner will go through stages in the process of healing. The process is intensified – and complicated – by the act of violence, whether random or targeted. The concept of these stages was popularized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926 – 2004) a Swiss American psychiatrist. She was a pioneer in the study of death and was the author of the best-selling book, On Death and Dying, in which she first promoted her theory of five stages of grief.

Kubler-Ross, in seminars, lectures and follow-up books, emphasized that the stages are not meant to be a complete list of the emotions that can be felt. She also noted that there was not a particular order to the stages – that even the progress through the stages is unique to the individual. She also stated that these stages are present in other extreme, life-altering experiences other than death.

Administrators Role: Recovery and Expressing Condolences

When an act of violence occurs resulting in the death of a student and/or faculty member, the school administration will face many challenges as the response and direction of the school is established. Policies for the responsibilities and response procedures of employees may have been established in advance to provide guidance.

If the violence occurs during the school day, administrators are generally responsible for returning order to the environment and assuring the safety of the students. Law enforcement officials should be notified immediately and will manage the return to safety.

The administrator will often serve as the front-line of communication. It is the administrators generally responsible for contacting law enforcement officials and family members. To the extent possible, it is important to gather information quickly with as much accuracy of the details about the violence. If prepared statements to the media are necessary, it is often the administrator who will craft and deliver the message.

If a crisis intervention team is in place, the administrator may want to notify or activate the team. If the violence has occurred during the school day, immediate and decisive action will be necessary to return peace of mind and security for many parents. If a crisis team is not in place, the administrator may find help by selecting four or five key personnel to serve in the capacity during the crisis. The responsibilities of leadership during a time of crisis is often difficult for one person to manage.

Meetings with the teachers can allow the administrator to answer questions and prepare the staff for the hours ahead. A review of the responsibilities and procedures outlined in the crisis policy can assure that everyone handles the details in the correct manner. Time may be needed to allow the teachers and staff to share feelings as they respond to the events with grief.

Teachers Role: Guidance, Bereavement and Helping Cope

In addition to being sensitive to the stages of grief, teachers can help students process this difficult time by remembering several key ideas.

1. Adults should model calm and controlled behavior to the students. Children often take their emotional cues from trusted adults. Reassure the students that they are safe and other important adults in their lives are safe. Remind them that people they trust are in charge.

2. Help create a safe place for students to share their feelings. The security of school life has been damaged. The feeling of being upset or fearful are natural when a tragedy occurs. Steps can be taken to rebuild trust and safety by allowing guided positive discussion about the events.

4. Help the student control and manage their anger. Some people have a really difficult time dealing with anger. Anger can mask a variety of other emotions and problems. With some guidance, students can recognize that anger is a common reaction to an event that overpowers us. When an adult models calm behavior, students will imitate the example. Find acceptable outlets for anger and energy like exercise, projects or work.

4. Work toward re-establishing patterns and structures in life. Keeping to daily routines as much as possible will help rebuild security. It will also help take the focus off the tragic events. Structure can help in process the routine to normal routines.

5. Be prepared to refer students for professional help if unhealthy or drastic changes in behavior are noticed. Few adults are trained to properly handle the extreme reactions to grief and trauma. Knowing these limitations should heighten the need to be aware of local professionals to whom students can be referred for guidance.

Students Responses to Violence May Vary

Students will need help and counsel appropriate for their age group in coping with the violence and loss. Adults working with the students should be sensitive to the needs of the students, regardless of their age. Younger students may experience intense feelings of fear and anxiety. Early childhood and elementary children need brief, simple information. They are very literal and should not be given explanations that are heavy with figurative language. Upper elementary students will be very vocal with their questions.

Junior and Senior High students may show anger by acting out or they may become depressed and withdraw. Teachers can provide a model of calm behavior while listening to the feelings of the students. Older students will have opinions about the causes of violence and how the school should respond. Many will want to share suggestions about how the problems can be addressed and will appreciate an adult listening to their ideas.

No one can anticipate the response to traumatic acts of violence. A well-developed plan and calm, strong leadership can be instrumental in helping students recover from a tragedy of this nature.