The Death of A Student - One School's Response

By Tim Raabe, Joan Huber, RYI
Posted on October 31, 2013, in Crisis Intervention

 In October 2010, our local school and community experienced the loss of a High School student due to a car accident.  While this is an all-too-familiar tragedy in many schools and communities across the country, we at RYI were impressed with the caring and compassionate, yet organized and professional response from the school administration and staff.   Our hope is that the following, written by Lennox High School Principal, Tim Raabe, might help other schools in their process of preparing for a similar crisis. 

Experiencing the death of a student is the most difficult situation with which we as school administrators, teachers, and support staff must deal.  Regardless of the cause of death, each has a profound effect of those that knew the student.  Following the death, the effects on the family and other students are immediately shown as one would expect.  Shock precedes grief. 

School is a central feature in young people’s lives.  As such, it is a natural setting for students to start to try to make sense of a tragic occurrence.  The role of the school is to provide students a place to come to be with others in a safe and understanding atmosphere where they have the opportunity to begin working through the grieving process.   How well a school functions during these stressful times is dependent on how well the staff is prepared to handle these situations. 

We are not experts in this field.  Other schools may handle the situation more effectively.  What has been helpful for us is having a Crisis Manual that we can use as a resource.  Our Crisis Manual outlines the steps to be taken in the event of a death of a student.  It includes sample statements to read to the students the day following the death.  It also contains a phone tree we use to contact our staff members.  Most, if not all schools, have a Crisis Manual.  We keep the manual updated and review it annually with the staff.

We have had three deaths in our school since 2005.  All three were sophomore boys.  All three came from solid homes, were involved in activities, and had a wide circle of friends.  All three were traffic accidents.  Two accidents occurred during the week and one Friday after school was dismissed.  As soon as we confirmed that a fatality had occurred, we put our Crisis Plan into action.  Law enforcement has worked very well with us on these occasions.

After confirming that a death had occurred, I contacted the school counselor.  The counselor and I divided the list of teachers on the phone tree and called each individually.  It is imperative to give them only the facts and inform them that there will be a meeting before school the next day.  When we did not reach a staff member, we left a message that it was very important to call us back immediately and gave no other information.  We then contacted local church pastors, local youth ministers, and our school’s elementary and middle school counselors and asked them to be available for students when school opened the next day.

On the first school day following the accident, we met with all of the staff and gave them as many facts as we could about the death.  We reminded them that they are not trained counselors and should not engage in any activity that attempts to bring “understanding” to the incident.  Teachers were asked to be supportive listeners and flexible.  This would not be a normal day.  Teachers expected that students would want to discuss the event, and they allowed students to do so.  Conversations between students that were based on supposition instead of fact were squelched.  Students that wished to leave the room were allowed to leave.  We asked our staff to do something no one else is asked to do—hold their emotions until the students had worked through theirs.

As support people arrived, locations throughout the building were assigned where they could meet with large and small groups of students.  When students entered their first period room, I made a brief announcement that we had a student lose their life, and that personnel were available at certain locations in the building if they wanted to speak to someone.  We never questioned whether certain students should not be allowed to leave the room because there was no apparent connection with the deceased.  Sometimes deaths can trigger emotions in students not related to the actual event, but they need the time to work through a personal issue.

Students reacted in a number of different ways.  Many of the students met with adult advisors.  Some wanted to pray together or just “hang out” together without adults present.  Some just wanted to walk the halls.  Some played basketball.  Some wanted to sit in a quiet corner.  While it is important to have all of the students supervised, we tried to respect their privacy.  Paper and markers were made available for posters.  Chalk was made available for the sidewalk.  Posters were hung in assessable areas and students were encouraged to write messages on them.

Our last fatality occurred on a Friday afternoon.  In this electronic age, most of the students knew about the death within minutes of the event.  We put our Crisis Plan in action immediately upon confirmation from law enforcement of the fatality.  In addition to taking care of all of the duties outlined in the Crisis Manual, we made plans to open the school the following morning (Saturday) for students with support people on hand.  To inform the students the school would be open, we called several of the class officers and asked them to contact others.  Approximately a third of the student body was present the next morning.  This allowed the students to start the healing process and made the first day back to school less stressful.

We hope that no school has to go through the process of dealing with a student death.  We do not want to go through another one.  But schools must be prepared.  Having a procedure in place will help manage a miserable situation.

Tim Raabe, Principal
Lennox High School 

Joan Huber, School Counselor
Lennox High School 

Lennox, South Dakota

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