All professionals working in schools will, at some time during their career, have to deal with the death of a pupil or colleague. This may be due to long-term illness; but equally it may be the result of a sudden, unexpected tragedy. Knowing what to do when tragedy occurs is absolutely vital.
Within recent months, there have been several occasions where teachers have faced a variety of tragedies. At Taverham High School in Norwich, a year 8 girl fell from a pommel horse during a gym lesson. She landed head-first and later died in hospital. In Birmingham, a 16-year-old girl was stabbed to death on a crowded bus on her way to school. While in Wigan, a 14-year-old girl was killed by a pack of dogs.
A Nottinghamshire teacher died after falling four metres from a roadside wall while accompanying a school trip to the Austrian Tyrol. In another incident, a teenage schoolgirl from Slough died after falling from a ski lift during a school trip to the Italian Alps.
Sadly every year, there are also instances of children committing suicide after experiencing problems with bullies. Then there are the children who suffer fatal asthma attacks, meningitis, or problems resulting from anaphylaxis. And there are family bereavements, when a parent or relative dies.
School employees have to be prepared, knowing what to say and how to react without hesitation. It is at times like this that decisive action is needed, immediately providing comfort, reassurance and practical assistance.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to take a special assembly as head of year 7 to tell my year group that one of their classmates had died. She had been murdered.”
Tom Sherrington, headteacher of King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, has seen how grief can affect different children. He continued: “Grief is deeply personal and children and adults need to be able to handle things their own way. Some need a good cry every so often and the space and time for that to happen. Some want school to be their sanctuary from the grief and despair they face at home.
“It is equally important to say ‘it’s okay to cry’ as to tell them that ‘it’s okay not to’.
“The most important thing is to make sure they know that there is support; high-quality pastoral care is essential. The sense of loss can return and lead to feelings of anger. It is very traumatic. There is a need to console parents, children and staff. Everyone needs time to cry and get over it.”
Children and staff need to know who to turn to for help. It may be from form teachers, the SENCO or PSHE co-ordinator, counsellors, priests or school nurses. Macmillan nurses are sometimes asked for assistance when a bereavement has taken place due to cancer.
School nurse support
School nurses are automatically informed of any tragedy involving children as part of their role under the sudden unexpected death in childhood process. Any child that has been experiencing serious health problems or comes from a vulnerable family would already be known to the school nurse.
The role of school nurses is often undervalued. Most headteachers tend to regard the nurse as being mainly concerned with medical matters.
Sharon White, from the School and Public Health Nurses Association, said that school nurses can offer much more. She said: “School nurses are highly trained in public nursing. They have lots of skills in managing incidents. School nurses can react quickly offering their services in advising the school, providing drop-in sessions, home visits, helping with assemblies.”
Some nurses are trained in bereavement counselling and can talk to vulnerable children, such as the deceased child’s friends, and offer a series of sessions for parents, children and teachers to help them come to terms with the situation, as well as providing materials, advocacy, support and counselling.
School assemblies are key to informing everyone what has happened. As a deputy in an all-age special school with a significant proportion of life-limited children, Cathy Tattersfield had number of children who pass away.
“I used to hold special assemblies to try to help, which had to be tailored to the limited understanding of the children and to support the staff. It might be based on a children’s book, such as Badger’s Parting Gifts, or bringing a memory which is then tied onto a branch of a tree, or asking for stories or talents and lighting a candle as they are recounted.”
Setting up books of condolence, memory boards and using Facebook are also good ways of allowing people to express their grief. Care does have to be taken to ensure that the timing is correct for these measures. There has been at least one instance when the news of a child’s death was posted on Facebook before a parent had been informed.
The first priority after any incident has to be checking all facts, getting medical assistance if necessary, and notifying the family. Immediate contact between parents and the school is essential to ensure that they are prepared for comments from friends and others associated with the school. There is also the question of publicity.
Tragic events such a child’s death through stabbing, being savaged by dogs, dying on the school premises will result in media enquiries. Preparing a press statement and knowing who should answer any press enquiries is essential. The glare of such publicity may not go away for a long time, and staff and students have to be able to cope with it.
When two Cambridgeshire school girls were murdered by their school caretaker, there was nationwide publicity during the search for the children and the subsequent investigation. The media spotlight re-emerged as soon as the caretaker went on trial. It is a situation that can quickly reawaken feelings of loss, bereavement, grief and anger on the part of everyone involved.
Local authorities have teams that immediately go into schools following a tragic event and provide additional help. Such assistance can make a tremendous difference, as dealing with tragic situations can be very time-consuming. In Norfolk, the council’s critical incident team was sent to Taverham High School. Outside organisations may also be involved, such as the police and the Health and Safety Executive.
Consideration should be given to training, especially for new staff joining the school. There should be clear lines of communication so that everyone knows who is responsible for the different tasks in the event of a tragedy. First aid skills, recognising allergic reactions or knowing how to use inhalers and adrenaline auto-injectors can make the difference between life and death. In 2007, a child died after suffering an asthma attack at Offerton High School in Stockport. This led to an education campaign on the subject resulting in 500 school nurses in the North West being given specialist training in dealing with asthma attacks.
Finding ways of remembering the person who has died is essential. This may be through encouraging happy memories, creating memorials such as a installing a bench or garden in their memory, or undertaking special charity work. For example, teachers Claire Proctor and Phil Lowry took part in the 2013 London Marathon to raise money for Asthma UK after a pupil died following an asthma attack.
Mr Sherrington continued: “There is no formula to dealing with tragic events and it’s a mistake to think there is. It’s useful to talk it through early on, although, after that initial intense period, school is often where people just want to get on as normal.
“We need to recognise that it can take months and years for adults or children to come to terms with their feelings of loss and loneliness and the simple fact of missing someone. This is where high-quality, all-round pastoral care and staff wellbeing are key.
“Out of the blue, a sudden sense of loss and anger can return and, at times like that, a report’s deadline or the physics homework really don’t seem to matter.”
You always get through it in the end, Mr Sherrington reassures, but it can be very hard: “At my school, staff still talk lovingly about a colleague who died suddenly many years ago, and a boy who died from meningitis.
“In doing this it not only helps us to put our troubles into perspective, but it reminds us how fortunate we are and how important it is to belong to a warm and loving school community.”
Thankfully, tragic incidents are still rare in UK schools but unfortunately they will happen. Being prepared is essential, as it will make coping with the tragedy that little bit easier.
Angela Youngman is a freelance education writer.