Lesson

Working with the Community

Because schools exist within the context of a larger community, it’s very important that in the aftermath of a suicide or other death they establish and maintain open lines of communication with community partners such as the coroner/medical examiner, police department, mayor’s office, funeral director, clergy, and mental health professionals.

KEY CONSIDERATIONS

The school is in a unique position to encourage open and constructive dialogue among important community partners, as well as with the family.

Even in those realms where the school may have limited authority (such as the funeral), a collaborative approach allows for the sharing of important information and coordination of strategies. For example, a school may be able to offer relevant information (such as the likely turnout at the funeral) and anticipate problems (such as the possibility that students may gather late at night at the place where the deceased died). A coordinated approach can be especially critical when the suicide death receives a great deal of media coverage and the entire community becomes involved.

Coroner/Medical Examiner

The coroner or medical examiner is the best starting point for confirming that the death has in fact been declared a suicide. (In some cases, it may also be necessary to contact the police department to verify the information). It is important that schools Get The Facts First and ascertain that all information is accurate before communicating with students.

However, given how quickly news and rumors spread (including through media coverage, e-mail, texting, and social networking sites), schools may not be able to wait for a final determination before they need to begin communicating with the students. In those cases, schools can say, “At this time, this is what we know…”

There may also be cases in which there is disagreement between the authorities and the family regarding the cause of death. For example, the death may have been declared a probable suicide but the family believes it to have been a homicide or an accident. Or the death may have been declared a suicide, but the family does not want this communicated, perhaps due to stigma, for fear of risking contagion, or because they simply do not (yet) believe or accept that it was suicide.

Schools have a responsibility to balance the need to be truthful with the school community while remaining sensitive to the family. They can take this opportunity to educate the community (including potentially vulnerable students) about the causes and complexity of suicide and to identify available mental health resources. For example, a school might say, “According to the medical examiner, the death has been declared a suicide. It can sometimes be difficult for us to be absolutely sure whether a death was intentional or not (for example, in the case of a drug overdose or a motor vehicle accident involving a single vehicle). While we may never know all

of the details, we are deeply saddened, and want to take this opportunity to teach you some important information about suicide and where you can find help.”

Of course, if a legal gag order is in effect, the school attorney should first research the applicable state law regarding discussing the cause of death before the school issues a statement.

Police Department

The police will likely be an important source of information about the death, particularly if there is an ongoing investigation (for example, if it has not yet been determined whether the death was suicide or homicide). The school will need to be in close communication with the police to determine (a) what they can and cannot say to the school community so as not to interfere with the investigation, and (b) whether there are certain students who must be interviewed by the police before the school can debrief or counsel them in any way.

There may also be situations in which the school has information that’s relevant to the ability of the police to keep students safe. For example, the school may become aware that students have established a memorial off-campus and may even be engaging in dangerous behavior (such as gathering in large groups at the site of the death at night or holding vigils at which alcohol is being consumed) and may need to enlist the cooperation of the police to keep the students safe. The school may also be in a unique position to brief the police (and even the family) about what to expect at the funeral or memorial service in terms of turnout and other safety concerns.

Mayor’s Office and Local Government

A student suicide death may reveal an underlying community-wide problem such as drug or alcohol use, bullying, gang violence, or a possible community-wide suicide cluster. Because schools function within—not separate from—the surrounding community, local government entities such as the mayor’s office can be helpful partners in promoting dialogue and presenting a united front in the interest of protecting the community’s young people.

Funeral Director

The school and funeral home are complementary sources of information for the community. Schools are often in an excellent position to give the funeral director a heads-up about what to expect at the funeral in terms of the number and types of students likely to attend, and the possible need to have additional security present. The school can also provide information about local counseling and other resources to the funeral directors, with the request that the information be made available to attendees at the funeral.

Schools can ask the funeral director to provide (or recommend) materials that the school could provide to students to help them prepare for the funeral. Schools can also encourage the funeral director to talk to the family about the importance of scheduling the service outside of school hours, encouraging students’ parents to attend, and providing counselors to meet with distraught students after the service (and the need for a quiet area in which to do so).

Clergy

Because the school may be in the best position to understand the risk of contagion, it can play an important role by encouraging a dialogue between the family and the clergy (or whomever will be officiating at the service) to help sensitize them to the issue. This dialogue may provide an opportunity to explain the importance of not inadvertently romanticizing either the student or

Of course, if a legal gag order is in effect, the school attorney should first research the applicable state law regarding discussing the cause of death before the school issues a statement.

Police Department

The police will likely be an important source of information about the death, particularly if there is an ongoing investigation (for example, if it has not yet been determined whether the death was suicide or homicide). The school will need to be in close communication with the police to determine (a) what they can and cannot say to the school community so as not to interfere with the investigation, and (b) whether there are certain students who must be interviewed by the police before the school can debrief or counsel them in any way.

There may also be situations in which the school has information that’s relevant to the ability of the police to keep students safe. For example, the school may become aware that students have established a memorial off-campus and may even be engaging in dangerous behavior (such as gathering in large groups at the site of the death at night or holding vigils at which alcohol is being consumed) and may need to enlist the cooperation of the police to keep the students safe. The school may also be in a unique position to brief the police (and even the family) about what to expect at the funeral or memorial service in terms of turnout and other safety concerns.

Mayor’s Office and Local Government

A student suicide death may reveal an underlying community-wide problem such as drug or alcohol use, bullying, gang violence, or a possible community-wide suicide cluster. Because schools function within—not separate from—the surrounding community, local government entities such as the mayor’s office can be helpful partners in promoting dialogue and presenting a united front in the interest of protecting the community’s young people.

Funeral Director

The school and funeral home are complementary sources of information for the community. Schools are often in an excellent position to give the funeral director a heads-up about what to expect at the funeral in terms of the number and types of students likely to attend, and the possible need to have additional security present. The school can also provide information about local counseling and other resources to the funeral directors, with the request that the information be made available to attendees at the funeral.

Schools can ask the funeral director to provide (or recommend) materials that the school could provide to students to help them prepare for the funeral. Schools can also encourage the funeral director to talk to the family about the importance of scheduling the service outside of school hours, encouraging students’ parents to attend, and providing counselors to meet with distraught students after the service (and the need for a quiet area in which to do so).

Clergy

Because the school may be in the best position to understand the risk of contagion, it can play an important role by encouraging a dialogue between the family and the clergy (or whomever will be officiating at the service) to help sensitize them to the issue. This dialogue may provide an opportunity to explain the importance of not inadvertently romanticizing either the student or the death in the eulogy, but instead emphasizing the connection between suicide and underlying mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, which can cause substantial psychological pain but may not be apparent to others (or may manifest as behavioral problems or substance abuse).

Of course, if the school has a religious affiliation, it will be important to include clergy who are on staff in any communications and outreach efforts to support the student body and encourage them to be familiar with their faith’s current understanding of the relationship between mental illness and suicide.

Mental Health and Medical Communities

Most schools have counselors on staff, and it is important that these individuals are linked to other mental health professionals in the community. In particular, it is advisable that the school establish an ongoing relationship with a community mental health center that can see students in the event of a psychiatric emergency. In the aftermath of a suicide death, schools will want to notify the center to ensure seamless referrals if students show signs of distress. Schools will also want to publicize crisis hotline numbers such as Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255).

In addition, schools can encourage the local medical community, including primary care doctors and pediatricians, to screen for depression, substance abuse, and other relevant disorders in the youth they see.

Outside Trauma Responders

Working with schools in the aftermath of a suicide death can easily exhaust school crisis team members, which can interfere with their ability to effectively assist the students. Bringing in trained trauma responders from other school districts or local mental health or crisis centers to work alongside the school’s crisis team members—and to provide care for the caregivers—can be quite helpful.

Course Discussion

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