Get The Facts First
In the event of a possible suicide death within a school community, it is critical that the school first obtain confirmed and accurate information.
While it may not always be possible to immediately ascertain all of the details about the death, confirming as much information as possible is important because speculation and rumors can exacerbate emotional upheaval within the school. If the cause of death has not been confirmed to be suicide, if there is an ongoing investigation, or if the family does not want the cause of death disclosed, it can be challenging for a school to determine how to proceed.
Confirm the Cause of Death
The school’s principal or superintendent should first check with the coroner and/or the medical examiner’s office (or, if necessary, local law enforcement) to ascertain the official cause of death. If the death has been ruled a suicide, the school can proceed to communicate as described in the crisis response section.
If the Cause of Death Is Unconfirmed
If the body has not yet been recovered or if there is an ongoing investigation, schools should state that the cause of death is still being determined and that additional information will be forthcoming once it has been confirmed. Acknowledge that there are rumors (which are often inaccurate), and remind students that rumors can be deeply hurtful and unfair to the missing/ deceased person, their family, and their friends.
If there is an ongoing investigation, schools should check with local law enforcement before speaking about the death with students who may need to be interviewed by the authorities.
If the Family Does Not Want the Cause of Death Disclosed
While the fact that a student has died may be disclosed immediately, information about the cause of death should not be disclosed to students until the family has been consulted. If the death has been declared a suicide but the family does not want it disclosed, someone from
the administration or counseling staff who has a good relationship with the family should be designated to contact them to explain that students are already talking about the death amongst themselves, and that having adults in the school community talk to students about suicide and its causes can help keep students safe.
If the family refuses to permit disclosure, schools can state, “The family has requested that information about the cause of death not be shared at this time” and can nevertheless use the opportunity to talk with students about the phenomenon of suicide: “We know there has been a lot of talk about whether this was a suicide death. Since the subject of suicide has been raised, we want to take this opportunity to give you accurate information about suicide in general, ways to prevent it, and how to get help if you or someone you know is feeling depressed or may be suicidal.”