When tragedy strikes at school, counselors help ease the trauma
(Editors note: This is part one of a two part series on how Carbon School District handles tragedies that occur within their student body and staff).
Tragedy, grief, sadness.
At one time or another in everyone's life, tragedy of some type takes place. What follows such an event is grief and sadness. The trauma of the tragedy goes on long after the actual event.
For children, a tragedy in the family or one including a friend or schoolmate is often a first time anything remotely like it has ever happened to them. Nearly 40 percent of those under 18 will experience a death of a peer at some point during their school years. More profoundly, 20 percent will have witnessed an actual death. For about five percent, the loss of a parent by the time they are 16 years of age is a reality.
What follows the tragedy in a young life is important. How that grim reality hits and the grief that must be expressed that follows the event is expressed is important. While traditionally many have said death is just part of life and people need to "buck it up," not everyone can do that. Many who do "buck it up" are grieving on the inside and often the results of doing that are long ranging and profound.
Schools can be a very good setting for kids to be in when grief takes place due to a loss in the community. They provide a familiar environment (normalcy) and students who get help can be observed over time. In addition, schools are expected to be places of comfort and safety for students and many who would not turn to outside mental services for problems associated with loss, willingly accept help from school provided help.
Carbon School District has a Crisis Response Team in place that responds to tragedies, whether they be personal to one or two students, or more general, such as the loss of a classmate or a school staff member. The team consists of some district personnel from various schools along with the counselor in the school and the school's administration. Outside agencies are also involved when something takes place.
"The program is very individualized," said Judy Mainord, the secondary supervisor for the district and one who is part of the team. "What we do depends on whether it affects just one student or the entire school. When there is a student death we always respond."
The basic district-wide team consists of Mainord, Karen Kone, Karee Hunt and Deborah Worley. They have been together, responding to crisis for 11 years.
The death of a student in a school can have a debilitating effect on the campus for a long time. How that death is handled, from both a school and family point of view, is important.
"When a student dies we make a home visit to the family," said Karen Kone, who works at Sally Mauro Elementary. "We take leads from the family as to how they want things handled."
The team focus' on the students in the school and what can be done to help them overcome the sad feelings.
"The grief counseling team has a narrow focus," said Mainord. "That is the impact on the students."
Kone says that how the school staff reacts to a tragedy also affects campus.
"Children take their cues from us," said Kone. "We need to help them grieve in a healthy way."
The grief a school feels is not only confined to the students either. Staff members at the school are often struck by it too and that can be problematic.
"When a school is impacted, counselors and others are impacted too," said Hunt, who works at Wellington Elementary and the Lighthouse. "Because of that we have someone from the outside come in to help them."
Tragedy can happen at any time. The team assembles once a death has occurred and it doesn't matter what day it is; Saturday, Sunday, holidays, they come together. That group consists of the regular district team, the counselor for the school, the principal and any other key members that may be needed. When they meet they determine who will be the most impacted and the scope of the responsibilities of the team as they work with the school's personnel and students. Once those decisions are made, the principal holds a special faculty meeting to decide how to announce the death to students. That is always done with a factual statement. The team and the process are under the direction of the school principal.
While there is a comprehensive guidance counselor in each school, the extra help becomes a necessity.
The mantra of the team is to "not have chaos on top of crisis." Chaos can result from a number of different situations, and in this day and age of social media, rumors fly faster than they every have. Facts become the gold standard when it comes to dealing with crisis.
Another gold standard is to not vary from normal schedules and activities. School is never closed for a death, no matter who it is that passed away.
"Kids want to know what is going to happen," said Kone. "They want to know what is going to happen to them, to others, etc."
The groups says that normalcy is one of the keys. That doesn't mean that people should not take time to grieve, but the act of keeping classes going, doing things at the same time of day as has been done all year is important. In fact all on the team agreed that they have seen kids relieved when, after discussions about the situation, they move on with their studies.
For some students what may have happened in the recent past can make a different too. A death in the family, compacted by one following in the school can create problems for individual students.
"Students may have had to face one death and then another can set them off," said Worley, who works at Carbon High School and Creekview Elementary.
Creative activities always help students too. There are ways to have memorials and ceremonies that are helpful.
"We find activities for students to do that can help them cope with the death," said Hunt. "They can draw cards, make posters and various other kinds of things expressing their grief."
But death is not simplistic, in that someone is just gone from the ranks of the school. Some of the problems afterward arise from the way the death occurred. An accident, a disease, natural causes are all a little different. But one way does stand out that affects students and others more than any other: Suicide.
It is a known fact that if suicide deaths are handled improperly in a school, it can lead to many other problems, including more possible suicides.
That is where the Crisis Response Team becomes more important than ever.