Youth Suicide - Information For Schools - Postvention   

IDAHO SCHOOL RESPONSE GUIDELINES FOR SUICIDE AND SUDDEN DEATH

Suicide crisis response and postvention are critical as they:

  • Maintain student and staff safety
  • Provide support to grieving or traumatized victims
  • Screen or refer and follow-up with those who may need more support
  • Reduce the likelihood of contagion for suicide, other self-harm, and violent crises

IDAPA 08.02.03.160(3a) states “Each public school district shall adopt a policy on student suicide prevention. Such policy shall, at a minimum, address procedures relating to suicide prevention, intervention and postvention. As used in this paragraph, "postvention" means counseling or other social care given to students after another student’s suicide or attempted suicide.”


Responsibilities of School Principal or Designee

  1. Verify the death with law enforcement, coroner’s office, hospital, or family of the deceased. IMPORTANT: The death may be labeled a suicide ONLY AFTER it has been officially determined by the coroner. This determination may take weeks. See the note below if family does not want the death labelled as suicide.
  2. Convene Crisis Response Team immediately.
  3. Contact the family of the deceased to express condolences, offer support, ask what students should be told and inquire about funeral arrangements.
  4. Inform 1) your school district office, 2) the State Department of Education at 208-332-6960, and 3) administrators of schools where siblings are enrolled or where the deceased recently attended. In tribal communities, the Bureau of Indian Education may notify main offices that notify principals.
  5. Notify staff. If news of the death is received before the start of the school day, ensure all staff have been contacted via phone tree before start of school and are advised how the school response will proceed. Set up a staff planning session before the school day. Be sure to consider staff who are not regularly part of the school but who may need to know, such as regular substitutes, after-school coaches, leaders of off-campus groups, relevant bus drivers, etc. If news is received during the school day, use your Crisis Response Team procedures for proper handling of staff notification.
  6. Act as the media spokesperson. Direct all staff to refer all media requests to principal or designee. A prompt response to the media is critical to help mitigate rumors. When speaking with media, focus on the positive steps of the school’s postvention plan to help students through the immediate crisis. Offer warning signs (if coroner has ruled a suicide or confirmed that the death is being investigated as such) and resources where parents and students can get help (See Media Sample Statement). Remind media of safe messaging guidelines (See Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide or visit reportingonsuicide.org).
  7. Ensure office personnel are prepared to deal with calls and in-person visitors concerned with the death (See Office Personnel Phone and Visitor Protocol).
  8. Schedule a time and place for an after school de-briefing for school personnel to provide emotional support and review next steps.
  9. Provide information about the death and funeral arrangements to parents of other students when the information becomes available. If the coroner has ruled a suicide or confirmed the death is being investigated, refer to it as such. Include information about support services available to students at school, signs of grief, ideas to help (See What Helps) and other community resources, including the hotline number and warning signs if the death is a suicide (See Parent Sample Letter).

Only refer to the death as a suicide if 1) the coroner has made the official certification and 2) the family of the deceased does not object. Otherwise, refer to it as a sudden death. If the family objects, it may be helpful to have someone from school administration or counseling who has a good relationship with the family contact them and explain that students are already talking, texting, or using social media to discuss the death and that talking with the students about suicide can help keep students safe. If they still object, schools can state, “The family has requested that information about the cause of death not be shared at this time.” The school may then go on with suicide postvention activities without referring to this death as a suicide. Let the family know that the school will be sending out an email with general support and resources to all students’ parents so that they can watch for signs of concern in their own children. A school’s main responsibility is to keep all youth safe.

Keep the School Open and as close to normal as possible. For safety purposes, permit students to leave school early only with parental permission and documentation and ask parents to pick up their children in person. If parents are unable to pick up and stay with their children, the students should remain at school to ensure safety. Implement an enhanced system of tracking student attendance. Follow regular school routines to the extent possible.

DO NOT announce news of the death over the loudspeaker or in school assembly. Refer to Crisis Response Team protocols below for proper handling of student notification.

DO NOT empty the deceased’s locker without first contacting the family. The family of the deceased may prefer to do this in privacy or to have school personnel do it for them. Provide quiet time and support to meet their wishes. If the locker becomes a memorial, let students know that items outside will be collected and shared with the family up until the time of the funeral. After the funeral, the school will no longer keep memorials.

 

Responsibilities of School Crisis Response Team 

The school Crisis Response Team manages the emotional fallout within the school community to decrease the potential for contagion (copycat behavior). The team will likely meet several times during the first day.

  1. Contact law enforcement to verify the facts of the case, if not already obtained in the call by the principal.
  2. Implement counseling support plan to:

    a. Assess what resources are needed. Consider requesting resources from neighboring school districts, pre-screening available mental health services, and contacting clergy, if appropriate.

    b. Clarify responsibilities for support of school personnel, students, and parents with regard to grief counseling, debriefing, etc.

    c. Designate rooms and personnel for students in crisis. Do not allow bereaved students to congregate in halls or allow large groups in the designated rooms.

    d. Coordinate with district or community mental health services for additional resources.
  3. Implement communication plan, which should include:

    a. Write or review existing scripts for office personnel or other designee — not students — for answering the phone, a staff announcement, a student announcement (by classroom), and parent letter/email. Scripts should be honest and direct (See Classroom Announcements Scripts and Staff Instructions).

    b. Notify staff. If news of the event happens before the start of the school day, conduct a staff planning session (See Guidelines for Staff Session). If news of the event happens during the school day, or if phone tree notifications were not implemented before the start of school, assign team members to first notify staff who taught the deceased student or other staff who might have had extensive contact. The team member should be accompanied by another adult in case the staff member is unable to continue their duties. Substitutes may be needed.

    c. Notify closest friends of deceased, if known. Keep in mind the family of the deceased may have the best information about which students were friends and might be at risk. Individually notify any students who may be particularly at risk. Student services staff should provide support immediately and ongoing.

d. Notify all staff and students. Read announcement from a written message, class by class. Notify as many classes simultaneously as possible (as resources allow). Provide special support in classes of the deceased student including a student support person to sit in the deceased’s desk throughout the day, or for any teacher or student needing assistance. Pay close attention to students who have attempted suicide or have previously experienced any loss, either by suicide or a recent loss (See Youth Suicide: Helping Your Student).

e. Ensure notification of other schools where there are siblings or others who may be affected, including schools where the deceased student was engaged in extracurricular activities or schools where they recently attended.

Only refer to the death as a suicide if 1) the coroner has made the official determination and 2) the family of the deceased does not object. Always stick to the known facts of the case only.

  • Manner of Death: If the coroner has not officially determined the death to be a suicide, refer to the event as a sudden death. (See guidelines for actions when the family objects under the DO NOT section for the school principal above.)
  • Squelch Rumors: Rumors create more anxiety and trauma. If the coroner has not yet made a ruling, and there are students or anyone sharing undocumented information, take them aside and ask them to keep other vulnerable students safe by sharing only what is determined to be fact.If the Family Objects: If the coroner HAS determined the death to be a suicide, but the family objects to that determination being shared, honor the family’s wishes. For the announcements, use “sudden death” and state what the family has requested be shared. However, if students ask or talk about this death as a suicide, tell them that since the topic of suicide has come up, we can discuss it. Be sure to provide students with the hotline number and warning signs and ask them what trusted adult they will talk to if they are concerned about a friend or themselves. Let the family know that the school is sending an email for families to watch for suicide warning signs in their own students. Staff to Follow Schedule: Assign a staff member to follow the deceased student’s schedule, even sit in the deceased’s chair, to observe reactions and comments of students and follow-up as necessary. Let students know that seating assignments will be re-arranged after the funeral.
  • EXERCISE DISCRETION about the kind of information shared.
  • AVOID EXCESSIVE DETAIL, e.g., discussion of method of death.
  • HONOR THE VICTIM BUT DO NOT GLORIFY THE DEATH.
  • DO NOT VILIFY THE SUICIDE VICTIM.
  • Watch for Others at Risk: Identify, monitor, and assist students who are considered at risk for suicide. Follow-up with these individuals and their families, and the school should continue checking in for as long as necessary. All school staff should be especially sensitive to students who are particularly affected by the death such as the deceased’s close friends, peer groups, teams, clubs, etc., including activities at other schools. These students may need to talk about their reactions. Attention to these students may prevent future suicidal behavior. Keep in mind that in small schools, this may mean every student (See Youth Suicide: Helping Your Students).
  • Deceased’s siblings re-entry: Consider and provide accommodations for reintegration of the deceased student’s siblings. Ensure this is addressed if siblings attend a different school.
  • Keep Staff Updated: Conduct daily debriefing with faculty and staff during the crisis and postvention periods.
  • Documentation: Document activities as dictated by school protocols. Document social media memorial pages by taking pictures of them before they are taken down, usually 30-60 days after death. Documentation is important as each crisis presents an opportunity to improve the process for handling the next crisis and can help keep schools safe from liability.

 

Memorial Activities

Help Students find a way to grieve without allowing inappropriate memorial activities. Avoid any activities that glorify, glamorize, or sensationalize the death. “Schools can play an important role in channeling the energy and passion of the students (and greater community) in a positive direction, balancing the community’s need to grieve with the impact that the proposed activity will likely have on students, particularly on those who might be vulnerable to contagion. The school should prioritize protecting students who might be vulnerable to contagion over what might comfort students who want to remember the deceased student.”[1]

Please note: Memorials should be the same for any student death regardless of cause. Administration should carefully consider the establishment of any permanent marker for any student death. School staff are advised to make assertive, proactive efforts to guide students in the direction of safe activities for grieving and honoring the student who died. Ideas that safely honor the deceased are below.

AVOID that which other vulnerable youth may see as a way to receive recognition for considering suicide.

ALLOW that which honors the student who died and can help the living. 

Do not allow memorial services within the school building.

Assign support staff to attend the funeral service to help monitor students during the service.

Do not send all students to the funeral or cancelling classes for the funeral.

Allow donations collected for the bereaved family, charities, suicide prevention efforts or youth support programs.

Do not fly the flag at half-mast.

Suggest positive notes or memories written by those students and staff who wish, to be given to the family.

Do not allow large student assemblies about the victim or a moment of silence at assemblies.

Allow students to leave memorials at the deceased’s locker up to five days or until the day of the funeral, whichever comes first.

Do not allow permanent memorials of any kind, e.g. plaques, trees, benches, retirement of a sports jersey, photos of the deceased on school walls or in display cases, etc.

Allow pages in school newspapers or yearbooks that treat the dedication equally with that of any other death. Common guidelines suggest a small photograph, name, birth and death dates and something positive about what they did while living.

Do not allow visual displays of the deceased’s image, name, death date, etc., on posters, bracelets, t-shirts, or other attire. If this occurs, tell students of the dangers it poses to other vulnerable youth.

 

Do not dedicate of sports events or other events to the deceased.

 

 

Other Important Postvention Elements

Social Media: DO assign an appropriate school official to monitor social media related to the deceased student such as TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. In some cases, the site many need to be taken down particularly if posts or comments are unsafe or traumatizing.

Self-Care: DO remember self-care during this process! Be aware of your own emotional response to these events and take care of yourself (See Self Care for Adults).

Students at the Funeral: DO suggest to the family, if possible, to hold the funeral after-school hours so staff and students might attend. When emailing parents, remind them that attending the funeral with their children will greatly support and help keep students safe.

These guidelines are meant as a basic list of critical functions for school postvention. For a complete postvention guide, see After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools published by SAMSHA.

Also see Children, Teens and Suicide Loss Flip Book published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

For immediate or ongoing questions or concerns, contact the State Department of Education at 208-332-6960. If you feel any student or staff poses an immediate threat to self or others, contact the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 208-398-4357 (HELP), or call 911 if the person has lethal means.

For more information on school-related suicide prevention, intervention and postvention, go to www.sprc.org.