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Last Updated: Friday, 7 September 2007, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
How schools deal with tragedy
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News education reporter

Rhys Jones
Rhys Jones from Liverpool was shot as he walked home
Teachers will have to deal with at least one bereaved child during their career, usually associated with the death of a family member.

But what happens when there is a desk standing empty in the classroom because tragedy has struck and a pupil has died and they have to explain this to a room full of bereaved children?

It may have been a freak accident or sudden medical condition during the school holidays.

But it could have been a very violent situation played out in the media spotlight - as in the recent case of murdered schoolboy Rhys Jones, or the equally shocking deaths of Damilola Taylor in Peckham and Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham.

The school friends they leave behind are ill-prepared for the shock of dealing with such a trauma - but a classroom-based support network usually kicks in within hours of their discovering what has happened.

Younger school children - those up to the age of seven or eight - find it more difficult to make sense of what has happened.

Drawing 'therapy'

In the rare event of a pupil death, the school will usually make some kind of announcement.

This may be done within the confines of the classroom or, especially in the case of younger children, during an assembly where a head teacher or other member of staff will explain what has happened.

Children's reactions to such catastrophic news will differ and they will deal with it in different ways.
Children will want to talk to people they are familiar with and can trust at times like this
Peter Norman, senior educational psychologist, Buckinghamshire County Council

Buckinghamshire county council's senior educational psychologist Peter Norman said: "Some younger children might want to draw pictures of the person who died.

"Or pupils might want to write down their memories in a 'memory book'."


Huntingdon secondary school in York has experienced more than its fair share of trauma with the deaths of two pupils and one teacher within the last decade.

One child collapsed very publicly during an English lesson in front of his classmates.

Another was taken ill during the Easter holidays and never returned to school, succumbing to brain cancer within weeks of being diagnosed.
I told Jimmy's mates personally of his death and they cried openly in front of me
David Kibble, Huntingdon School, York
Deputy head teacher David Kibble had direct involvement with the aftermath of the second boy's death, which was doubly sensitive because his mother is a teacher at the school.

The pupils were told the following day.

Mr Kibble took Jimmy's four closest friends into his office to break the news to them, as the head teacher told the rest of the school during the morning assembly.

Mr Kibble said: "The children were absolutely dumbfounded. They couldn't believe someone of that age could die.

"I told Jimmy's mates personally of his death and they cried openly in front of me, as did some of the other pupils during the assembly."

Emotional outpouring

At this point, the school opened up a room where pupils could go to grieve and have some "time out".

It was used by Jimmy's four best friends and some others, mostly girls.

"After an hour or so we became aware it was becoming quite emotional in there," said Mr Kibble.

So a decision was taken to end the session and send them back to lessons.

Children in classroom
Younger children find it more difficult to deal with bereavement
Mr Kibble said: "I brought the four best friends back to my office and within a few minutes they were ok."

The local vicar, who was made available to grieving pupils, told Mr Kibble the children who were more emotional were not just upset about Jimmy's demise but other incidents in their lives involving the deaths of loved ones.

This concurs with the experience of Peter Norman, who found that pupils with learning difficulties or those who had experienced a recent family bereavement were more vulnerable than others to a fellow pupil's death and may need some extra support.

He said: "Children will want to talk to people they are familiar with and can trust at times like this.

"This will usually be parents and teachers, not psychologists, but we do send psychologists in to support teachers.

"Children need to feel safe and to be given some tender loving care and information they'll need to help them understand what's going on."

A week after Jimmy's death a special assembly was held to celebrate his life, with anecdotes about his fun-loving nature.

A memorial sculpture was erected in the school and every year until they left the sixth form the pupils placed flowers beside it.

Tree planting

Counselling is a word we hear all too often these days in the aftermath of a traumatic event. But it is not always the best course of action.

Mr Norman said: "Teachers will be using counselling skills immediately after an incident, but this is not counselling per se.

"Counselling usually comes in later for those who have not been able to cope with the situation."

At Huntingdon School, Mr Kibble said no-one needed counselling and it was all dealt with quite successfully in-house.

In Buckinghamshire, as in many other areas, schools are all linked to an educational psychologist, who is not based on the premises but will be available to give guidance and support on request.

The National Council for Palliative Care has produced a booklet for school staff to help them deal with bereaved pupils.

This includes advice on allowing children to be involved in remembering a child who has died, for example in deciding the nature of a memorial.

It says: "This is one way of being able to discuss death with children and to enable children to feel part of a caring school community.

"Planting a tree or creating a quiet area within a playground or setting up a prize to be awarded in recognition of the child are ways of marking the life of someone connected with the school."

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