When any individual within a school becomes aware of the sudden death of a student, be it homicide, suicide, accidental death, or the death of a student following an illness, it should be the responsibility of that individual to immediately call the principal and inform him/her of all the known facts regarding the death. It is important that the principal verify the facts concerning the death; including who has died. (There have, in some instances, been inaccurate accounts of who actually was deceased.)
The principal needs to quickly assess the impact this death will have on the school community (i.e., how popular was the person, what extracurricular activities did he/she participate in, etc.) The principal will then take the lead in the activation of the protocol and the process through which students will be notified about the death. If the death occurs outside of school hours, the principal should call members of the Crisis Management Team.
The team members notify the entire staff that there will be a change in the procedure of the normal school day and requests them to come to school early the following morning. If help, in addition to the building Crisis Management Team, is needed, the principal should arrange to notify the appropriate people. If the principal is not available, the associate principal or the principal's designee will begin this process.
A phone calling tree should be established each school year in order that school staff may be notified of school-related emergencies in a timely manner.
Appoint members to the building Crises Management Team (typically include counselors, nurse, other building administrators, school social worker, school psychologist, educational consultant, etc.).
Organize calling tree.
Hold twenty-to-thirty minute staff meeting to review protocol procedures (this needs to be done annually).
When notified of adult or student death, verify the death with appropriate public officials (if notification was not by family member or public official). Instances have occurred where the notification of who died was incorrect.
Notify the school Crises Team Leader and assess the expected degree of response from the school community. Factors include groups deceased was involved in, the popularity of the person, etc.
If death was not during school hours, activate the pre-arranged calling tree to notify staff of early-morning mandatory meeting. Request that Crises Management Team members meet with principal thirty minutes prior to staff meeting.
Designate the Crises Management Team Leader as the person responsible for orchestrating the emotional first aid activities for the next few days. This person will serve as the "hub" of information and will direct the team's daily activities.
Direct a staff member to immediately remove contents from deceased student's locker. Hopefully, this can be accomplished discreetly and prior to students returning to school. The personal contents belong to the parents and removal to the principal's office will ensure they are properly presented to the parents.
Direct a staff member to pull the deceased student's cumulative folder to determine what other schools the deceased student might have attended. The principal should call the other schools and inform them of the events that have occurred, particularly, if younger siblings are in those other schools. Secondly, the principal should notify the central administration office of the circumstances of the day. It is also helpful, at this point, to assign responsibility to someone to pull the student's name off any mailing lists that would be sent from the school and central administration office.
Identify a support center area in the building where students may come for support and counseling. This area should be close to the guidance office and/or the main office to facilitate communications between guidance and administrative staff.
Prepare an announcement to be read over the P.A. system to the students.(At the elementary level, it is often best to have the classroom teacher make the announcement.) Do not announce the death of a student until it has been verified by reliable sources (i.e., police department, hospital, parents, etc.)
Note: It is important to have a central spokesperson, usually the principal, for all announcements to students. By the time students reach school following the death of a peer, they will have heard many different versions about what happened. The presence of a strong, caring, and supportive authority figure (i.e., the principal) sharing information during this stressful time is important. (In elementary schools, it is equally important for the classroom teacher to be a strong, caring, and supportive presence since the teacher will be looked upon by the students to provide stability during this crisis period.)
One example of an announcement is the following:
Students, may I have your attention, please. Last night (student's name) from our junior class died. This morning the faculty met to develop a plan to help all of us cope with this sad event. There will be special support assistance available for any student who feels they need this service. Today, counselors will be available in (given location) all day. Pause. I would like all of us to reflect for a minute in memory of (student's first name). Pause. Thank you for your attention.
Direct a staff member to collect funeral arrangement information and to prepare details for student/faculty attendance at the visitation and funeral. When details are final, an announcement can be made to staff and students.
Note: It is important to have faculty members present during the entire visitation period to assist the funeral home staff in handling children and teens. (Please refer to the Appendix regarding funeral and visitation.
Designate one secretary who will know how to reach the principal throughout the day so the principal can respond to any emergencies/administrative situations which may develop.
Call and/or visit the parents as early as possible to express the school's and your condolences. Visiting the parents is encouraged, and the principal should take along a staff member who has been well acquainted with the student. Ask the parents about pictures and other school-related articles to be used for the student's funeral. Determine with the parents who will be the family contact for the school. Recognize this may be the first of several visits. (The parents likely will be in a state of shock. If the death was by suspected suicide, the parents may not acknowledge or be in agreement with the coroner's finding which they have a legal right to challenge.)
Contact the clergy who will be conducting the funeral to determine what role, if any, students or faculty should play, and to learn what religious traditions will be involved. (See Appendix)
Prepare a letter to be sent to all parents regarding the death of a school community member (Please see Appendix for sample letters.)
Arrange fifteen-minute after-school meeting with entire school staff. Review day's activities and seek names of any student faculty thinks needs additional emotional first aid. After meeting with faculty, meet with Crises Management Team. Review day's activities and plan for the next day.
On the second or third day following the deceased student's funeral, begin to bring closure by encouraging teachers to resume regular classroom activities as quickly as is appropriate.
On the day following the funeral, the principal should make the following closure statement to all students and faculty: (This is done the day following the funeral because many of the deceased student's closest friends will not return to school the day of the funeral.)
May I have your attention, please. I wish to thank all of the students and faculty for the support you have shown each other during the past few days. The example you have shown is a positive and healthy one and provides us the opportunity to work toward strengthening our relationships with each other. Guidance staff remain available if you should wish to talk with a counselor. (Any additional comments from the family that have been passed on to the principal might be shared at this point.) In elementary schools the classroom teachers may be the ones to deliver the messages of thanks to the students for the support they have given to each other.
Post Implementation Follow-up
Within two weeks following the funeral, meet with the Crises Management Team and debrief actions taken. Two key questions are addressed: What worked well in dealing with this event, and what could be improved?
Modify the building protocol based upon feedback of crises management team and others. Provide changes in the protocol to any district level planning group.