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Critical Event Support with SISC - Self Insured Schools of California-

Planning, coping, and recovery resources when tragedy strikes.

Coping with the Death of a Student or Staff Member (Part 2)

Responding to the Death of a Student or Staff Member

The type of information schools should or should not share or can or cannot provide in the case of death varies based on the specific incident. The table below offers a few examples for schools to consider regarding information sharing.

Examples of Sharing Information for Specific Incidents

Examples of Sharing Information
CircumstanceCan ShareShould ShareCannot ShareShould Not Share
SuicideDirectory information*
  • Circumstances of death
  • Information about grades, friends, coursework
  • Anything about the student
  • Funeral arrangements
Death by Accident (if no violation of the law)
  • Directory information
  • Funeral arrangements*
Directory information*
  • Cause of accident (refer to law enforcement)
  • Information about grades, friends, coursework
Perpetrator in a CrimeDirectory information*
  • Details of crime, any subsequent criminal or legal action (refer to law enforcement)
  • Information about grades, friends, coursework
  • Anything about the student
  • Funeral arrangements
Death by Illness or Disease
  • Directory information
  • Funeral arrangements*
Directory information*
  • Circumstances of death
  • Information about grades, friends, coursework
*Only after consultation with the family

Verification of Information

When a student or staff member passes away, school personnel may want to share the news of the loss with the school community. Verification of information is one of the initial steps in this process. Potential sources of accurate information include family members, local police in certain circumstances, or disaster relief agencies in the event of a natural disaster. In the death of a student or staff member, school personnel should contact family members to determine what they would like to have disclosed to the school community. Once the death and the appropriate details surrounding the incident have been verified, activation of the school crisis team, initiation of the emergency management plan, and notification of the school community can occur.

Special Considerations for Sensitive Deaths

When the cause of death is particularly sensitive, such as suicide or drugs or alcohol, it is important to contact the family to identify what information they wish shared with the school community and to help them understand the benefit of open discussion with students in order to help identify other students who may be at risk of, or already considering, engaging in these life-threatening behaviors. It is not necessary to obtain parent permission to share information that is widely available publicly, for example, if suicide as the cause of death has been announced in public media. Special effort is needed to do the following:

  • Identify students at increased risk of adjustment problems, especially students who may have been aware of the suicide plan or who may become scapegoats, such as the former boy or girlfriend if the suicide occurred after a couple broke up.
  • Provide education to students, parents, and staff about the warning signs and symptoms of suicide or risky behaviors and how to access school and community support services.
  • Encourage students to seek help and reduce the stigma associated with seeking and accepting mental health services.
  • Avoid romanticizing the cause of death while at the same time acknowledging the individual who died.
  • Minimize media coverage.
  • Communicate with community mental health providers and agencies and the police to monitor possible additional deaths from high-risk behaviors that could occur within the community.

Sharing the News with Crisis Team Members and Other Faculty and Staff

The degree of information shared and the audience it is shared with will vary depending on the type of death. For example, the school will likely respond differently to a student who lost a parent than it would to a class of students who lost a teacher or a school that experienced death as the result of a school shooting. School officials and crisis team members must adapt their approach to match the particular circumstance.

Schools should have procedures in place for notifying crisis team members and other school faculty and staff. If the death occurs during the school day, administrators may call an emergency staff meeting and use this time to share the news, confirm a plan of action, reiterate roles and responsibilities as laid out in the emergency management plan, identify and dispel rumors, allow for questions and discussions, and—especially for teachers of younger children—provide advice on how to inform students. If the event takes place outside of school hours, including during vacations or summer recess, schools could activate phone trees, email, or text-messaging chains, or an automated messaging system to invite staff to a meeting to brief them on the loss and confirm a plan of action, if deemed necessary, based on the emergency management plan.

Talking with Students About the Loss

Strategies for talking with children and young adults about the death of a fellow student, staff member, teacher, family member, or friend will vary greatly depending on the age and maturity level of the audience. Tasking classroom teachers with sharing the news and facilitating discussion may be appropriate for younger children; however, older students may be more likely to already have information about the event so may be more interested in information about what happens next, such as memorials, opportunities for grieving, and so forth.

Reading a brief statement to students, within small, naturally occurring groups such as homeroom or first-period class, can be used for initial notification and to outline support services that will be provided. It is important that schools plan for notifying students who are not on campus at the time (e.g., those who are on field trips or absent). Notifying students via large assemblies and public address systems should be avoided, as they tend to be impersonal and do not allow the speaker to be responsive to student reactions. Letters can be sent home with students for parent notification and/or posted on the school's website. For major events, automated messaging systems or email distribution lists can be utilized to share information.

What to Say: Appropriate Statements and Potentially Unhelpful Approaches

When considering what to say, the goal of the communication should be kept in focus: to assist those who are grieving in expressing their feelings and reactions in a safe and supportive environment without trying to alter those feelings.

Appropriate Statements

  • "I'm so sorry to hear about your brother's death. Is there something that I can do that will be helpful?"
  • "I am so sad to hear about your friend's death; I can only imagine what you may be going through."
  • "I heard that your cousin died last week. I understand that it may be difficult to concentrate or learn as well when you are grieving; I would like you to let me know if you find yourself having any difficulty with your schoolwork, so that we can figure out together how to make it easier for you during this difficult time."
  • "I'm so sorry that your teacher died. Please know that I am here whenever you want to talk or just wish to be with someone."

Potentially Unhelpful Approaches and Corresponding Statements

  • Emphasizing a positive perspective or trying to cheer people up
    • "At least he had a good life before he died."
    • "I'm sure you will feel better soon."
  • Encouraging them to be strong or hide their feelings—"You don't want to upset the other students or have them see you cry."
  • Telling them you know how they are feeling or ought to be feeling (Instead, demonstrate your own feelings and express sympathy.)
    • "I know exactly what you are going through."
    • "You must be angry."
  • Competing for sympathy—"Both of my parents died when I was your age."

Providing Classroom Assistance

The crisis team should have a plan in place to assist in message delivery to classrooms in which a teacher does not feel able to notify or comfortable notifying the class or facilitating a brief discussion. For K–8 classrooms of a student who passed away, it may be helpful to assign a mental health professional to that class. Extra support may also be needed in classrooms of siblings, cousins, or close friends of the student who passed. Older students who are not assigned to a stationary classroom may benefit from having support staff and mental health personnel available in a designated room on campus.

If the crisis involves the death of a teacher, the school may consider assigning, at least for a couple of days, a teacher from the same or lower grade to the deceased teacher's class who is familiar with the students, or a staff member from the school crisis response team. Even if the crisis does not involve the death of a teacher, it is often quite helpful to arrange for a few substitute teachers, if only to provide rotating coverage for the teaching staff so that they can access their own support services during the school day.

U.S. Department of Education, Emergency Response and Crisis Management (ERCM) Technical Assistance Center. (2007). Coping with the death of a student or staff member. ERCM Express, 3(2). Retrieved January 10, 2023, from https://rems.ed.gov

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