Tampa area schools have experienced several tragedies in the past few weeks, among them a suicide and another death still under investigation at Pasco's Sunlake High, the murder of two New Tampa siblings who attended Hillsborough Liberty Middle and King High, and a traffic-related death of a Mitchell High student, also in Pasco County. Counselors headed to the schools to support students and staff members who were hit hard by the news.
Dr. David J. Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, spoke with the Times about how schools cope with sad events. For the full interview, visit tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.
Are there dos and don'ts when it comes to dealing with a crisis in a school?
Well, there are some preferred ways of doing it. … The over-arching issue is that schools are communities, and when there is a significant loss of a member of the community, or when there are significant crises or losses impacting members of the community, even if the disaster is outside their area, schools need to come together and provide a venue for supporting children. It goes to informing them, helping them understand it, providing support and assistance, and helping them cope. What you shouldn't be doing is ignoring it or pretending it doesn't impact them. There is plenty of research and a lot of experience that says it is very difficult for children to pay attention and to learn and progress in their educational course if they are grieving unsupported, or if they are dealing with a crisis event.
When I talked to a couple of teachers, they said that their students … were just sitting in their classroom with their iPod headphones on, not paying attention with tears running down their cheeks. Is that what we need to do, just let them let it out? Is that really letting it out?
Well, I don't think it's useful to sit in class with your iPod on. … I think more what you need to do is see that school communities have the capacity to help children understand and cope with this as a group. …
Not talking about a crisis or a loss actually says a lot. It says either that you think the children aren't impacted by it, which is not the case; or that they are unable or unwilling to cope with it, which we would not want to be the case; or that the school and its staff (are) unaware or unable to figure out how to provide assistance, which also isn't a good message. And so when things of high importance happen to kids and it's very relevant to their everyday life, we need to have schools step in and provide assistance. Otherwise, the schools become irrelevant to the lives of children. We don't want that, either.
Is it enough to just send counselors and say, go see them if you need to?
No. I think part of it is there should be, generally, some message that comes from the school. For example, if there's been the death of a member of the school community, that there be notification usually by teachers in classrooms as opposed to large assemblies or the P.A. system, which are quite impersonal. … And that there be some opportunity to help the children understand what happened and share some ideas with each other about how to cope with that, and that there be some offer of assistance and support that come with that. … Beyond some of the general discussions, it's not appropriate for teachers to provide counseling … but we are suggesting that teachers learn more about how to be supportive to children.
Is this something that schools can get over? Or is it something that lingers for a very long time?
What I tell people is that major disasters or crises are life-changing events. So that's what they do, they change your life. You don't get over them. I don't know if really you get past them. You learn to incorporate them and move forward with your life. That's life changing events, whether they're good or bad. …
When kids have major losses or there are major disasters or crisis events, we always revisit it, we always try to come to a better understanding of it. We just had the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster and people were talking about that experience. For most people, they just watched something in the sky. It didn't have that much direct impact on them. But if one of your classmates is murdered, that is going to have an impact on you. And you will revisit that when other difficult events happen in your life or as you get older and understand things more. …
And what I will say is, although these are some very important tragedies, you also have to appreciate that kids come to school every single day with personal tragedies. And they've had personal losses. Probably 90 percent of kids have experienced the loss of someone close to them by the time they have finished high school.
Death is a universal experience, and what you do also find out is that when one death occurs or one crisis occurs, it uncovers for kids and also for adults concurrent stressors and prior losses. I went into one school where there was a shooting and I was talking with teachers, and one teacher started sobbing during a workshop with teachers on how to talk to the kids. And she disclosed that she had miscarried 20 years ago. She hadn't shared it before. These kids may be talking about a parent that shot someone and thinking about their mother who might die from cancer. And the school might not even be aware of that.
Are these things that schools should be asking about?
In general what you want to do is create an environment where children feel comfortable coming forward when they are having personal issues that are impacting their day-to-day functioning. That doesn't mean, again, that the teacher is going to provide counseling on this, but might be able to say, "I'm so sorry your brother was in a car accident. Let me refer you to someone for counseling." … I am not suggesting that at the beginning of each day everyone share the worst thing that has happened to them. … We have to realize that loss and crisis impacts kids. And we tend to underestimate how much it does because we don't give them license to talk about it or show it.