Since classes started in September, a handful of seats have gone empty in classrooms across the metro area.
In September, a father killed his three teenagers before shooting himself in Minnetonka. Later that month, a Chanhassen senior died of a drug overdose. A pair of Lakeville students died in a pickup truck rollover the week after Thanksgiving. The day after Christmas, Columbia Heights siblings were killed in a snowy car crash.
Family tragedies ripple quickly to school buildings, where teachers and staff are increasingly practiced at making schools safe havens for mourning students. With crisis management plans, a majority of schools turn into command centers to help young people cope with grief they may have never before experienced.
“There are not many things in education that you say you get one chance at to do right,” said Tim Dorway, Chanhassen High School principal. “Helping students and staff and parents cope with tragedy of the loss of a student is one of them.”
Responses to student death have become more focused as school officials have learned from tragic experiences that have hit schools elsewhere, such as mass murders and active shooters, said Rick Kaufman, Bloomington schools spokesman. He is well-experienced in crisis management, after leading the response team in the Colorado district where Columbine High School is located when the mass shooting happened there in 1999.
Most plans include a series of tasks: Get the facts, convene a team, prepare statements, seek out the most affected students and staff and decide what resources are needed.
At Chanhassen High School, when the district gets word of a student’s death, a crisis team is pulled together that includes administrators, a school resource officer and counselors. The team turns to its checklist — notifying people close to the student, deciding on a time for an emergency staff meeting that doesn’t send others into a panic and then making the announcement.
“You go from condolences and emotion to action fairly quickly,” Dorway said.
The announcement is a typed statement that a teacher will read to each classroom — it isn’t done over the intercom.
Team members divvy up other roles, such as providing grief support, helping teachers make the announcement and maybe assigning staff members to follow the missing student’s schedule through the rest of the day.
If the death is a suicide, Bloomington’s school psychologists and counselors step in to help colleagues and students guard against potential copycat acts, Kaufman said.
The evening when students at Lakeville South High School found out two of their peers had been killed, the district knew students would likely be coming back to school; it was a natural gathering point for students who had just left for the weekend, district spokeswoman Amy Olson said.
The auditorium and commons held students from both Lakeville South and Lakeville North that night, she said. There, the students cried and hugged; teachers and counselors were nearby for support.
Then Lakeville South students expressed themselves in a longtime school tradition, Olson said: painting a boulder outside the school with initials of the students who had died.
The nuances, the aftermath
Moving from the initial response to the recovery stages is often difficult, Kaufman said.
“We do tend to move on and want to move on quicker,” he said. “But grief knows no time limit.”
In the aftermath, Chanhassen pays attention to details, said the school’s dean, Erin Swoboda. Taking roll, for example. If a student who dies is marked absent, his grieving parents could get an errant call that night. That student’s parents shouldn’t be on an e-mail list for an announcement about the student, either.
“Those little things are critical, too,” she said.
Chanhassen High, which opened in 2009 and is still in its infancy, lost two students in 2015. But the way the school community supported itself in the hard times “helped form our culture,” Dorway said.
After a student died in April at the school, the students came back to school the next morning and were ready to discuss their loss, Swoboda said.
“This was their safe place and where they felt like they should be,” she said.