Responding to the death of a student can present challenging opportunities for administrators of a school. Teachers, staff and students will all be impacted by the loss and will all have different needs, depending on their age, the relationship shared with the deceased student, and the circumstances of the death itself. How the school responds to the loss can have a strong influence upon the school community’s ability to cope and manage the grieving process.

Bereavement for School Children

The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement estimates that by the time children complete high school, most will have experienced the death of a family member or close friend. Almost 40% of the students will have lost a friend or classmate close to their own age. A little over 5% will have lost a parent. About 20% of the students will have actually seen someone die.

For school administrators and staff, this means that it is probable that some student in the school will be grieving nearly every day of the school year. When a student in the school passes away, the reaction to the death may be more intense and outward signs of grief may be more apparent. School personnel can be a source of support for the students whose grieving process may take more than a year.

When the death of a student occurs, the school setting can provide a safe, familiar environment where a large number of students can be supported at the same time. Teachers, who are familiar with the students’ behaviors and who see the students every day, can monitor how the students are managing the loss. A well-informed teacher can be sensitive to changes in student behavior and be ready to refer the student to more focused counsel and help.

Crisis Team Interventions Can Have a Positive Impact

After the school community learns of the death of a student, the administrator of the school will have many opportunities to influence the teachers and students as they process the news and begin to grieve the loss. Here are several guidelines which may be helpful as events unfold and plans are made.

  • It is important that the school should make contact with the family. In addition to verifying the information regarding the death, the school should find out what information the family would like disclosed. The family may have already made some announcement publicly through the media and a copy may be available for school usage.
  • If the school has a crisis intervention team in place, the administrator may want to notify or activate the team. If the information about the death takes place outside of school hours, the team may be notified and invited to a meeting to formulate a plan. If the information is received during school hours, a meeting can be held immediately so that plans can be made and information dissimulated.
  • If the school does not have a team in place, select four or five key personnel to serve in the capacity during the crisis. Representatives from administration and faculty, along with individuals who have a background in social work or counseling may be productive members for handling the tasks of supporting the school community.
  • Contact the student’s teachers and share the information that is available. If the school is in session, it may be done in a way that removes the teacher from the classroom. If the school is not in session, a phone call notifying the teacher of the information of the death and some details of the school’s plan would be appropriate.
  • Because some teachers may be impacted at a greater level following the loss, consider having a few substitute teachers available to either assist teachers or take over classrooms.

A Staff Meeting Can Set the Tone for Structure During the School Day

With the action plan of the Crisis Intervention Team drafted, the administrator should schedule a meeting with the entire staff before the students return to school. Some of the items that the meeting may want to cover would include:

  • Share a written statement of the circumstances of the death.
  • Prepare the teachers to share the information in their classroom at the beginning of the day. Many people find it beneficial for a team of two individuals to present difficult information. If there are not enough staff and volunteers to create teams, consider combining classes so that two teachers can present together.
  • Though everyone handles grief differently, present some information about common ways that students grieve and the behavior that might be expected.
  • Review the plan for the school day with the teachers. Keeping the day as routine and structured as possible will likely have a positive impact upon how the students handle their grief. A flexible schedule will allow times to talk about the death when the need arises.
  • Identify a location of a room for students who need additional support and counsel through the day to meet. The room may be staffed by a school counselor or nurse, area counselors, or local religious leaders.
  • Allow time for teachers to talk about their own feelings and reactions to the death..

Allowing Students to Play a Role in Memorializing the Deceased Can Promote Healing

Planning a memorial service or time of remembrance can be a positive experience for those who wish to participate. Classrooms or individual students may want to acknowledge the life of the person in a meaningful way. Events like a community assembly where students and families are invited, a school assembly, or a commemorative event like the planting of a tree or dedication of an appropriate item can provide support and comfort to the grieving family and the school community.