Monday, February 26, 2007

How Should The School Deal With The Death of a Student

The first time I ever had to deal with the death of a student was during my first year of teaching. A student transfered into my math class from another school on Monday. He was quiet, didn't turn in any assignments, and didn't cause any trouble. The following Monday we got a note from the counseling office that we should send down any assignments or writing we had from that student. None of us had assignments but we had all sorts of excuses: it had only been 1 week, that's not uncommon for new students, etc. Dad wanted to hold something, anything, in his hand, and we had nothing. We didn't have any schoolwork to show a man who no longer had a son.

In 10 years of teaching, I've been fortunate not to have to deal with the deaths of students I knew. I didn't really know that boy after only one week, and I haven't known other students who've died. I've dealt with the deaths of two teachers, one of which took place on campus, but not of children. Until today.

Early this morning we got an email from one of our school counselors that a student had died over the weekend. He'd transfered to another school at the semester but was still in our district. I had his sister a year or two ago; I had him last semester. It took place at the house of a student at our school.

Later in the morning word had spread, and in what I can only assume was an effort to keep the rumor mill to a minimum, an announcement directed all of us to read our emails--where the principal had written a very brief message that could be read to students. Most students who were severely affected hadn't come to school today, so we were able to get through the day without too much distraction.

At least one teacher complained about the announcement and said there had to be a better way to notify us. I wonder why, given that this is the third death in as many years that we've had to deal with at our school, we don't have some sort of procedure in place to notify us instead of making it up on the fly each time it happens. How is it handled at your school, fellow teachers?

On the way home, I stopped at a card store and found two simple sympathy cards. One I sent to the family, and one I sent to his sister. I lost a brother four years ago this past week; I understand what she's going through. My condolences are sincere, but, given what the family's suffering, seem so insignificant as to border on meaningless. What can I offer them, given their loss?


La Maestra said...

In the 5 years I've been at my school, I only remember losing two students. One had been out of school for a while undergoing cancer treatment before he died. I don't quite remember how the admin handled that, as it was my 1st year and I didn't really know the kid.

The second was A, the sister of a student, B, I was close to (I'd had B in several classes and coached her on an athletics team.) I actually had had A in my summer school class--it'd been about a week, though, and as there were 55 kids in my class, I hadn't gotten a chance to know her. While walking home, she was the victim of a violent, gang-related attack (although she was not in a gang herself) and she died a week later. Because it was summer school, there wasn't a general announcement made, but everyone knew, and we allowed students to attend her funeral without attendence penalty. Since I was close to B, I sent her a card and followed up with phone calls, and she told me later that I was the only teacher who had sent a card.

We haven't, knock on wood, lost any other kids that I can think of. However, even if we had/did, we likely wouldn't have a policy regarding how such things are handled--sadly, we're not big on official policies for minor things like disaster drills, and real bona fide emergencies tend to be a comedy of errors as a result. Nothing like working in a Decile 1 school!

Ellen K said...

Sadly, we do have a procedure. It's in a notebook that addresses everything from armed intruders to tornadoes. An older teacher once told me that on the average one student in every high school dies every year. So far, between unforseen car crashes, cancer, flu reactions, that has proven true. I didn't know any of the students personally, but it does have a sobering effect on the students.

Jetgirl said...

I have a somewhat alternative opinion on the subject, having gone through deaths at school as a student, but not a teacher.

One of my friends, actually an ex-boyfriend, committed suicide in his senior year. Our school was well-organized, but I felt they spent far too much time going over and over and over how everyone should be grieving. We even had grief counselors vulture-ing around for a month, waiting for some poor student to mentally collapse. I was stalked for a while by one of these guys that was convinced that my interest in doing my homework and the fact that I was at school was indicative of unhealthily repressed anguish.

It was too much, things needed to get back to normal more quickly. I personally needed the normal grind of homework and classwork to take some of the pressure off. I actually stayed home from school a few days a week or two after the death just to get away from everyone constantly talking about it, and to get the counselors off my back.

I do not know how your schools handle processes like these, but I think it would be good for any administration to keep in mind that student's reactions will definitely vary. For every student that needs emotional support there will probably be one that will work through it best by being left alone.

rightwingprof said...

I've had two students die. One was in the hall right outside the room just before the final exam. I was about done setting up the room when there was all kinds of ruckus outside. I went out, and saw that EMTs were taking him away. He'd pulled a week of all-nighters and had a heart attack at 19. The other disappeared about a third of the way through the semester, and the other students in his group were at first concerned, then annoyed after they had to do two assignments without him. They had tried to contact him without success, so I sent him a polite but terse email message suggesting that he contact the other students in his group. About a week later, I got an email message from an AOL account I'd never heard of. It was the student's father, telling me his son had been killed in a car wreck a month earlier and apologizing for not telling me sooner. I felt pretty awful about that one.

Phyllis S said...

I think it's lovely you sent the cards. For me, I'd love for anyone to share with me a favorite memory of my late husband, something he did that made them laugh or was special to them. If you have something special you could share with the family sometime in the next few months, trust me, it would mean the world to them. I can't remember the last person who said his name to me.

As for the procedure, we're a small town & the procedure unfortunately is: word spreads like wildfire.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

Considering we have procedures for just about everything else, we don't have one for a situation such as this. We lost a former student and two current students during the summer and it was all over the local newspaper and myspace so most of us knew before any formal announcement came. Often times we get a phone call from the telephone tree telling us about a death in our school family. The one we've avoided the past year, miraculously considering we're a military town, is having to deal with a death of deployed parent. I had two students who did lose a parent due to military action, but it was the year before I had them and wasn't around for the notification.

Ellen K said...

I think the coldest thing is to ignore the situation. A friend of my sons' was killed in a motorcycle accident right after graduation from high school last year. He had been in band, but the meglomaniac band director ragged on the kid, who was working to pay for college, until the kid quit. When the kid died, every teacher in the school was at the funeral except the band director. Even teacher who just knew the kid in passing. The band director acted like it was just another day. I know the father went to school and was yelling at him about how the band director couldn't even marshal enough guts to be kind to the kid in death. I would never want to be that teacher. Or that parent.

J.D. Williams said...

I read this post last week and thought about asking our admins what the procedure for something like this would be. I didn't get around to asking.

Unfortunately today I found out. We lost a student during the night from injuries sustained in a car accident. The student was in the 8th grade, and had been in my class the first year I taught.

Our school did a very good job of quickly bringing in grief counselors from other schools and organizations and sent a letter home to all upper-grade students families.

It is just the start, and I hope that the support is still there for students. We have spring break next week.

A lot of the kids knew before they came to school because of comments left on his MySpace page. Unfortunately many of them had bad information about the situation and that ran through like wildfire. I overheard students talking about it before the admins notified anyone (but didn't know who they were talking about).

It was a very hectic and emotional day. Most of my current students did not know the student that passed away. They were still very emotional and rightfully so. It was someone their age, that they saw in the park after school everyday, and suddenly gone.