When a child or teacher dies, it’s common for students, staff or classmates to create a memorial to honor them on school grounds, like a bench, a plaque or newly planted tree.
Increasingly, though, school counselors say such memorials can be more hurtful than helpful, acting as a constant reminder of tragedy for kids who are grieving. For that reason, and others, more school boards are drafting policies to prohibit or limit permanent memorials in schools.
In Farmington, the board is considering a new policy that would bar such permanent memorials.
The district’s counselors advocated for the policy, said Barb Duffrin, Farmington’s director of student programs.
“It’s coming from the rationale that school is a place for learning and a hopeful place,” Duffrin said. “In the past we’ve had permanent memorials for staff and students that have passed away, and there is the possibility over time … of the appearance of sort of a graveyard.”
Such memorials can cause hurt feelings if they are created for one person and not another. They can also be upsetting for others grieving their own, different loss, such as the death of a family member, said Barbara Walker, a Farmington High School counselor.
That’s why it’s easier to have a policy in place before something tragic happens, she added.
“When there is a traumatic event and emotions are high … it’s difficult to make a decision that really takes into full consideration the impact on the whole community,” she said.
Prior Lake-Savage, Lakeville, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan and Edina are among the metro-area districts that have memorial policies in place.
They vary, but several encourage commemorating people in a less tangible way, such as creating a scholarship or collecting donations for a favorite cause. Farmington’s proposed policy does, as well.
Farmington currently has memorials at various schools. Existing memorials would not be affected by a new policy, Duffrin said.
Sign of the times
Several members of the counseling staff said there was no specific motivation to address the issue now but that doing so reflects current best practices in the counseling field.
Many districts, Farmington included, have created teams of staff members who are trained to respond in the event of a traumatic event. In Farmington’s proposed policy, the district’s Trauma Response Team would help plan appropriate memorial activities and work with students and families.
Julie Singewald, a Farmington school board member, said the board has been considering creating a memorial policy for some time. Crafting one now is a chance to be proactive, she said.
When Lakeville approved a memorial policy last spring, it cited several reasons for doing so. One was to avoid the kind of difficult situation the district encountered when a memorial tree had to be cut down to add onto a school.
Another reason was the maintenance that plaques, benches or gardens can require, said Renae Ouillette, Lakeville’s director of student services.
“Sometimes when we create things, it’s not easy to maintain them and then they become in disrepair,” she said. “They’re not honoring the person anymore.”
Ouillette estimated there are fewer than 10 memorials at Lakeville schools. One is a garden at McGuire Middle School, with colorful commemorative birdhouses and plaques.
Jim Skelly, a Lakeville board member, voted against Lakeville’s initial memorial policy last spring, but it passed nonetheless. Making rules about such a sensitive topic “seemed like a cold conversation,” he said.
There were also students who thought that policy was too restrictive, he said.
The district revised the policy in October 2014, making it more lenient and giving principals final say in certain situations, he said.
The concern with the effects of trauma and grieving on students isn’t going away, counselors and administrators said.
“It’s really becoming much more aware of what could trigger kids, how do we handle trauma,” Ouillette said. “That’s the kind of stuff that is kind of motivating people to really look at this.”