Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

When tragedy strikes

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From sensing distress in staff to comforting bereaved families and supporting students at a funeral, dealing with the aftermath of a death demands human skills and attributes beyond anything listed in a disaster plan.

One Wednesday morning last October, our acting headteacher took a phone call from Ofsted. Our anticipated inspection would be taking place on the following Tuesday and Wednesday. Little did we know then that by the time the team arrived we would be coping with a tragedy.

One of our long-time staff, Liz, suffered a stroke in her office at lunchtime on the Friday. The paramedics arrived and took her to hospital. Early on the Monday morning her husband phoned the school to tell us that she had had another stroke and the prognosis was not good. That evening he phoned me at home and told me that Liz had died.

Anyone who has worked in large organisations for as long as most school and college leaders will have experienced events like this: people do get ill and they do sometimes die unexpectedly. Schools occupy a unique position in their communities, however, and managing the aftermath of a bereavement extends well beyond the school gates.

Professionalism and sensitivity

It would be remiss of me to neglect to acknowledge the professionalism and sensitivity of the inspection team. On that Tuesday morning they all turned up and sat in their room while my colleagues and I communicated with staff, students and governors.

At about 10 o'clock the lead inspector explained to me that I could ask for a deferment of the inspection. She said that she could not advise me what to do but emphasised that if the inspection were to proceed it would have to be conducted as rigorously as if the circumstances were normal.

After consulting a local authority officer, our excellent school improvement partner and a number of senior staff, I requested the deferment. A few minutes later the team left us.

Liz's sudden death was neither the first nor the last sad event to affect our school community during the year. In August 2007 we became one of the very many schools in the country to lose a former student in Afghanistan. Michael was serving with the Royal Marines and was killed by a sniper. His younger sister was about to enter year 10.

Then, in the early hours of a Saturday morning in May this year, two of our boys took shelter in an empty house garage in the village where they lived. A fire started in the garage and both boys died, one at the scene and the other in hospital two days later.

Most schools have a written plan for managing unforeseen events like these, setting out roles and responsibilities, essential contact details and so on.

A key lesson that we have learned is that the plan is only helpful up to a point and that skills and attributes are what really count in the hours, days and weeks following tragic events. Most difficult for most of us are the interpersonal skills, not only when dealing with distressed people but also to recognise distress in the first place.

There are also considerable demands on our communication skills in both private and public contexts; and sensitive decisions have to be made, sometimes at very short notice.

Consistent message

The deaths of Liz and our two boys both occurred in term time. In both cases we were aware of the need for consistency and clarity in what and how we communicated to members of the school and local communities.

Texts of messages to be delivered to staff and students were prepared in advance so that, while the speakers varied, the message remained the same. Letters to parents and governors were prompt, clear and respectful, and as an unforeseen bonus they provided wording that could be used when the inevitable phone calls from the local media began.

I am very proud of how our students and staff responded to the events of this year. With the exception of a very small number who used the loss of the boys as an opportunity to draw attention to themselves with exaggerated displays of grief, our young people behaved with dignity and showed great respect for those who had died and for their family and friends.

It's important to bear in mind that several of the key providers of support to students, their teachers, will themselves be grieving about what has happened, often concealing their own feelings while helping youngsters to deal with theirs. I have learned the need to be observant and to sound out trusted colleagues about how people are feeling, both individually and collectively.

Of course, it is in circumstances such as these that the professionalism and training of key staff really kick in. Our own student support tutors did a marvellous job, supported by the brilliant Connexions adviser who cleared his diary for a week following each event. Additional counselling was provided by local authority staff and was used by both students and adults.

When unforeseen tragedy occurs, bereaved families naturally look for comfort and support from the community which has shared in the care of their loved ones: the school. This is where we have had to be particularly sensitive.

Our guiding principle has been: what the family wants, the family gets. For some of us this has been an ear, either on the phone, in school or in the family home. In one case the school has continued to play this role over an extended period of time. In all cases we have sought the families' wishes with regard to attendance at funerals, tributes, and communication with the media.

Be kind to yourself

News and broadcasting organisations have inevitably looked to the school for information and comment. The positive relationships we had already established with our two main local papers helped to ensure sensitive coverage, while the interest of more remote organisations that followed the deaths of the two boys was fortunately mostly discreet.

Again, clarity and consistency of communication, and respect for the wishes of the bereaved families, helped to ensure that the messages which were reported were those we wanted to convey.

Over the past year many of our students have attended funerals for the first time in their lives, and not in the circumstances in which most people do. In many cases they would not have been there if not members of the school community, so while they were not representing the school in a formal sense, there is nevertheless a sense in which the school is present.

Many of the staff have spent a great deal of time speaking and listening to individuals and groups of young people before, after and even during funerals. They don't teach you that at teacher training college.

I'm writing this in the last week of the summer term. It might be my imagination, but I think I feel somewhat more tired than I usually do at this time of year. Having reflected on the year we have had, perhaps it is more real than imaginary.

My final recommendation to colleagues dealing with traumatic events is this: be as kind as possible to all the members of your community but please don't forget to be kind to yourself.

Les Smith is assistant head at a school in Yorkshire.

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders