When tragedies happen at district schools, a cadre of specially trained staff stand ready to step in to comfort, reassure and counsel students, staff and families. A death or other tragedy involving a student or school staff member brings with it the same grief felt by a family when one of its members is stricken. In a school setting, that might mean upwards of 500 staff and students need help grappling with loss or trauma.
While the school counselors represent the front line in this process, the district’s Psychological and Social Services Department is staffed with 37 full-time licensed counselors, psychologists and social workers who support their campus colleagues in time of need.
Director of Psychological and Social Services Connie Rodriguez says her staff is assigned to school feeder patterns from the first day of class so they get to know staff and students. They routinely work with nurses, campus counselors and the school-based Youth & Family Centers to address the day-to-day needs of students.
That means the team is ready to move into action when tragedies occur. Rodriguez said the staff goes into classrooms to help teachers explain to students what has happened.
“The standard is to deliver the news (of tragedy) face to face to the students,” she said. “We’ve learned by hard experience in the past and through research that bad news is best delivered directly to students by someone with whom students are familiar.”
These experts work with the classroom teachers whose students are directly involved in a tragedy to prepare the teacher to give the news of the loss to students. “If the teacher cannot, we are there to support them. We provide individual and group counseling if students need this support.”
Sometimes, tragic events can trigger old memories, past losses and other traumas students may have experienced, making support even more important. Rodriguez said helping students often prompts them to help each other.
“Often we see the kids are being very kind to each other, and hugging each other and helping each other cope through a loss,” Rodriguez said. “We encourage and model that behavior and allow the students to express that because that’s part of the healing process.”
She reminds teachers to care for their own emotions. “Teachers are so giving they can forget to take care of themselves. Our team attends to the staff to give them a place to come and someone they can speak to in order to process what has happened. As adults, we have to balance the need to hold ourselves together for the kids with the need to process our own emotions.”
Adults should not be reluctant to seek counseling for themselves. “We have a fabulous Employee Assistance Program that staff can certainly take advantage of. It’s a great benefit. In fact, we print cards for the staff with the numbers and encourage them to access this help if they need it. “
The bottom line is that everyone needs some help at some time in their lives to deal with stressful situations. “The kids look to us to see how we’re handling it. We need to show a balance of care and concern and model how to hold it together and keep going. This is a teachable moment in which teachers can model that we can both share concern for a family that has experienced a loss and show that we too feel that loss very deeply.”
Finally, Rodriguez warns against the temptation to try to rush through the grief process. “Sometimes we think we should get through it as quickly as possible. On the contrary, grief kind of lingers for a while. It takes some time to get through it. People should give themselves the time they need to heal.”