Episode 22: How To Respond To The Death Of A Student

Episode 22 Show Notes


CLICK HERE for a complete list of resources.


10 Steps to responding to the death of a student

  1. Establish a School Crisis Team
  2. Create a Plan in Advance
  3. Gather Facts
  4. Notify Staff, Students and Parents
  5. Deploy Mental Health Professionals
  6. Equip your teachers
  7. Prepare For Media Coverage
  8. Funerals, Spontaneous Memorials and Memorials
  9. Special Circumstances (suicide, drug overdose)
  10. Conduct an After Action Review


  • Establish a School Crisis Team


  • During COVID-19 Pandemic, you may have established a Health and Safety Task Force
  • Why do you need a Crisis Team?
  • When we are under stress we do not always make good decisions
  • Fight or Flight
  • Cortisol
  • Who? Head of School, School-based counselor?, Nurse?, Security Officer? 2-3 Veteran teachers, (Consultant role: not at a regular meeting, Mental Health Professional, Law Enforcement or Crisis Management Professional)
  • Start small, 3 people
  • How often? Once a month. Last thing you need is more meetings. MOST IMPORTANT


  • Create a plan for death of a student or staff member


  • Your crisis management team will eventually create all kinds of plans: active shooter, weather emergency, fire, etc.
  • Create a specific plan for death of a student or staff member
  • Where do we begin?
  • Use these 11 steps and you will have a good start
  • Use all of the resources in the show notes and flesh out your plan
  • Revise and edit the plan and share it with a mental health professional, a pediatrician and a law enforcement officer or crisis management expert


  • Gather facts


    • Back in September of 1998, when Caleb died, I got a phone call from a close family friend.
    • Today, it is MUCH more likely that you are going to hear about it from a parent who heard about it from their child on social media or in the class group chat.
    • Rumors and misinformation will spread quickly.
    • The entire school community needs to hear the accurate information, at the same time and as soon as possible
    • There is a DESIRE to get the word out as quickly as possible.
    • Mindset shift: Gather ALL of the accurate information and verify those FACTS before communicating anything.
    • Sometimes we send out an email 10 minutes after an email with a correction on the time for the Spring Musical or the date of graduation. We get things wrong, but the stakes are low.
    • The stakes are high. GET THIS RIGHT.


  • Confirm the facts from a family member or law enforcement.
  • Find out what information can be disclosed.
  • Call an emergency meeting of the Crisis Team on Zoom and discuss how to notify parents.
  • The more that is in the plan, the less decisions need to be made in the moment.



  • Notify Staff, Students and Parents





  • Once you have confirmed the facts, you need to communicate.
  • How?
  • Depends on when you find out the news. 



  • During the evening or on a weekend.
  • Text or call every staff member. Phone/text tree? 
  • Invest in an automated text service. Emergencies, snow day, water main break
  • Start the day with an all staff meeting.
  • Say exactly what you know.
  • Give them help with how to address this with your students.
  • If a teacher cannot talk to their students, a member of the Crisis Management Team will do it.
  • Give teachers the space to process this news emotionally and to discuss logistics.
  • Have mental health professionals on hand and also give teachers links to resources to help them navigate their own emotions
  • (More on deploying Mental Health Professionals in the next step)
  • If your CMT has these resources sitting in a Googledoc in advance you won’t be scrambling.


  • If you learn the news during the day. You and other members of the CMT will go to each room, talk to teachers in the hallway, have a copy of a typed memo, include how to talk to the students (by age), and include resources for the teachers.



  • Notify students, face to face, in small groups, by familiar adults.
  • Have your teachers monitor the emotional reaction of the students.
  • Give teachers a script. Some won’t need it, many will.
  • Be sure to let students know what mental health resources are available and how to access those resources
  • Close friends, teammates, friends of siblings, may have a more significant reaction.
  • DO NOT announce this on the PA system or in a school assembly.
  • Don’t forget about students that are absent or on a field trip. You will get all of the staff on the emergency text, your email, etc. Be sure not to miss any students.



  • While students are being told, you should have an email for parents sitting in drafts, ready to send.
  • Notify parents about the death.
  • Tell parents what resources are available at school for their children.
  • Tell parents how they can get answers to their questions.
  • Include links to resources for parents as to how to talk to their children about death and grief.
  • In the show notes, I have included a link to a resource that I found: templates for staff, student and parent notifications


If the death occurs during the summer, Winter Break or Spring Break

  • Most school crisis organizations recommend that you open the school for at least 1-2 days after the death and have mental health professionals on site.
  • Sometimes your students want to grieve together and just have a space where they can be with each other



  • Deploy Mental Health Professionals


  • You need to secure the help of mental health professionals in advance
  • When Caleb died, we were scrambling late into the night to get some qualified counselors and pastors at the school the next morning.
  • Form strong partnerships with Mental Health providers. Create a good list of several providers that have agreed to help in a time of crisis. Have their contact information handy. Pray you don't need them.


  • Equip Your Teachers


  • Your teachers are going to be simultaneously processing their own emotions while helping their students process this trauma 
  • I don’t usually quote long sections of text, but this was so good and so helpful, I am just going to read it.
  • It comes from the National Center For School Crisis and Bereavement and it talks about what teachers can do to help the children. 
  • Your role as a school leader is to give your teachers all of the mental health support that they need to do the following 5 things for their students. QUOTE


  • 1. Listen – to what students want to share with you. It may be difficult, but just listening can be a powerful healing force.
  • 2. Protect – students from becoming re-traumatized. Sometimes other students may ridicule or bully students who are highly emotional or cry.
  • 3. Connect – with students who have suffered a loss by asking how they are doing; checking in with them on a regular basis; letting them know that you are available to listen; or giving them positive feedback about their attendance or classroom work.
  • 4. Model – adult behavior that shows them how responsible adults react to loss and respond to a crisis. Adults may grieve, but they continue to act with consideration and maintain calm routines at school.
  • 5. Teach – Crisis counselors can teach students about the common signs and symptoms of grief and/or trauma so that students can assess and understand their own behavior and learn new ways of coping. END QUOTE
  • Remember, your role as a school leader is to give your teachers all of the mental health support that they need to do the following 5 things for their students


  • Prepare for media coverage


  • At the beginning of this episode, I mentioned that, the morning after Caleb died, in our parking lot we had news vans from all three local stations and reporters from the two big newspapers in town.
  • Looking back, we handled it pretty well, but I would change a couple of things. 
  • To keep it simple, remember the 3 C’s of crisis media coverage on your campus
  • Containment, Communication, Cooperation



  • Your number one priority after the death of a student is to avoid re-traumatizing your students and staff.
  • That’s why you need to provide containment to the local media so that they cannot access your students or staff on campus.
  • When you see a news reporter on TV covering a school related story, you will see the school in the background. If you look closely, you will notice that in many cases, they are across the street from the school.
  • You need to provide containment to media access and that means having them set up just off school property.
  • Back in 1998, I didn’t know this. The media set up in our parking lot. They were trying to interview kids as they got off the bus. They were interviewing my HS students as they got out of their cars in the student parking lot.
  • If you limit their access to just off campus, they will still try to get a quote from a parent who is dropping their child off in carpool, but at least they are talking to an adult and not a child.



  • Your school should always designate one person that will speak with the media after a crisis
  • Usually the HOS or Communications Director
  • Go to the cameras
  • Going back to my experience, I spoke to the media in the school lobby and I regret that. Commotion, class changes. Would have been better to go to them.
  • Have a prepared statement.
  • Focus on the tragedy, hearts are with the family at this difficult time.
  • “Our priority here on campus is to provide all of the support that our students and staff need. We have mental health professionals on campus to assist us and they will be here for as long as they are needed.”
  • DO NOT speculate.
  • You may be asked questions about what kind of student this child was. Keep that answer brief, positive and accurate. “Artistic, great athlete, loved building robots”. 
  • If your school is large and you don’t know the student well, ask the child’s teachers.
  • That’s it! 1) It’s a tragedy and our hearts go out to the family. 2) We are supporting our students and staff. 3) If they ask, “Caleb was a talented artist, a great athlete and loved building robots.
  • Just keep repeating that script until they stop asking questions. They will figure out quickly that they are not going to get more than that.



  • You may see the media as a nuisance
  • They are doing their job
  • Provide them with the information they need to do their story
  • Refusing to talk to the media at all or saying “no comment” to everything typically makes things worse and can make the reporters more persistent and more likely to try to get a quote from a student or a teacher



  • Funerals, Spontaneous Memorials, Memorials


  • This can be one of the most complicated parts of the death of a student or staff member.
  • Sometimes people wonder why it took so long to create permanent memorials at the World Trade Center or the site of the United Flight 93 crash or creating memorials at schools where shootings occurred. 
  • This is because memorials to the student that passed away can be very emotionally charged.
  • Before we get started on this section, I wanted to let you know that I have linked a resource for you in the show notes from grievingstudents.org that will help with this. You can grab the show notes at the privateschoolleader.com/episode22



  • Check with the family first
  • DO NOT make it mandatory
  • When Caleb died his classmates wanted to attend the funeral. We provided a bus. We had 53 students in 9th Grade that year. 3 chose not to attend.
  • Make it easy for students to attend (Don’t mark them absent)
  • Get creative to allow for staff to attend
  • Strongly consider NOT closing school on the day of the funeral


Spontaneous Memorials

  • Memorials will start to “Spring Up” within hours or even minutes after the news is shared.
  • Plan in advance how long will it stay up, what will be done with the cards, flowers, stuffed animals after that designated time frame concludes.
  • Many experts say that 5-7days should be the maximum amount of time that a spontaneous memorial stays on display. 
  • Usually the student’s funeral will occur within that time window and may schools opt to have the spontaneous memorial removed after the funeral occurs.
  • Commemorative activities and memorialization efforts should not be a focus of the crisis response in the immediate aftermath of a death. If done too soon, there may be a perception that the school is trying to “close the chapter” on grieving or bringing closure to the situation.
  • The immediate focus should be on supporting the mental health of all teachers and students.


Coalition to Support Grieving Students

  • Thoughtful
  • Respectful of a diversity of views and needs
  • Includes students in the development process
  • Applied fairly and consistently across a wide range of contexts
  • Ask the kids. Often what we think is a good idea as adults is not what the kids want.
  • “A commemorative memorial or event planned by adults for children will generally be more helpful to the adults than the children.”
  • Lots of competing efforts on social media. Student Council president talked to kids, they voted. Saturday morning, moment of silence at the school, day of service.
  • Younger child, more teacher involvement.
  • One teacher decided to have each child write their favorite memory of their deceased classmate and draw a picture. The teacher laminated the pages, put it into a book and gave it to the family.
  • The Coalition to Support Grieving Children generally discourages permanent or “legacy” memorials for students for a variety of reasons. 
  • These would include naming a room or building after the deceased, planting a tree or hanging a plaque in the school’s lobby.
  • You can check those out for yourself should you choose to watch the video linked in the show notes
  • Suffice to say, permanent memorials are very complicated and should be carefully discussed with all stakeholders, especially students, before any decisions are made.


  • Special Circumstances


  • By “special circumstances”, I mean a student death by suicide. Also, parents may not want the cause of death to be widely known such as in the case of a drug overdose or driving while intoxicated
  • When a student dies by suicide, it is extremely important to acknowledge the student’s death without romanticizing or glamorizing suicide.
  • The support of the mental health of staff and students is EVEN MORE IMPORTANT when a student dies by suicide than by accident or illness.
  • All student deaths are tragic, but death by suicide is even more troubling because of the potential short term and long term impact on students and teachers.
  • While this is terrifying, it is also a tremendous educational opportunity for your school and an opportunity to keep everyone safe.
  • That said, you need to lean heavily on the mental health professionals.
  • There are several resources in the show notes about how to best help your school community when a student dies by suicide.


  •  After Action Review


  • After every mission, Navy SEALS have an After Action Review or AAR.
  • Rank goes out the window and everyone can speak freely.
  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What do we need to do to make the next time better?
  • There is a temptation to “move on” after the funeral, after the dust settles.
  • Don’t move on before you have an After Action Review that is honest, raw and authentic.

Big Takeaways

  • Having a student at your school is a living nightmare.
  • The only thing that can possible make it worse it to not be prepared and to mishandle the communication piece, the mental health piece, the media piece or the memorial piece or all of the above.
  • You need to create a plan and then pray that you will never need to use it.


10 Steps to responding to the death of a student


1 Establish a School Crisis Team

2 Create a Plan in Advance

3 Gather Facts

4 Notify Staff, Students and Parents

5 Deploy Mental Health Professionals

6 Equip your teachers

7 Prepare For Media Coverage

8 Funerals, Spontaneous Memorials and Memorials

9 Special Circumstances (suicide, drug overdose)

10 Conduct an After Action Review



Call to Action

  • Read the show notes
  • Tons of resources from several excellent organizations
  • If you do not have one, create a Crisis Management Team at your school and have your first meeting in the next 30 days.

CLICK HERE for a complete list of resources.


If you implement any of these strategies at your school, I would love to hear from you! Send me a quick note at [email protected] and tell me about it. I can answer your questions and I’m also good at giving pep talks when you get stuck!


CLICK HERE for a bunch of free resources, including Plug & Play PD's (video webinars with guided notes) for you to use with your teachers, Top Lists of Leadership Books, Productivity Books, TED Talks and much more!


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