How Do We Talk About Students Who’ve Been Murdered? Reflections From a Former Teacher
During my first year of teaching at a middle school in the early 1990s, one of my students died during a gang initiation. I do not remember a grief counselor coming to the school. We were just given the date and time of the student’s funeral. A small group of teachers took the day off and attended the funeral in separate cars. I remember getting dressed for the Catholic service and sitting silently in the pews with my colleagues as the priest spoke. As a 21-year-old teacher, I cried while some of my veteran colleagues kept stoic faces throughout the service. Afterwards, we went up to the student’s family, shook their hands, and offered our condolences. We went back to our classrooms and never talked about the traumatic event again.
But the student’s death continued to haunt me, as the deaths of all students do: the young woman shot point-blank while sitting in a parked car outside the school building, the young man who shot himself in a police car’s back seat after he was arrested at school, and most recently the high school student who was killed near the Chicago suburb I live in now. That last student, Elijah Sims, was just two days shy of his 17th birthday when he was killed. His high school teacher organized the vigil at a local park. Over 100 people came to celebrate his life.
His death got me thinking about how too many students senselessly lose their lives, and too many educators must learn to let go of young people they care for deeply. Elijah was one of more than 160 young people under the age of 17 who have been killed in Chicago since fall 2011. The most recent school shooting in Kentucky—among countless others—once again points to the deep impact of loss on our school communities.
So why do teachers very rarely talk about how we come to terms with the deaths of our students, even when we attend multiple funerals in one academic year? We often fail to acknowledge the psychological effects that remain after the nation moves on to the next news story. How do we mourn as teachers? Should we talk to crisis counselors in the aftermath, as we encourage our students to do? How can we not feel guilty when we go back to the safety of our own homes?
Trauma Doesn’t Just Go Away
The topic of how to address trauma is not a new one for schools. According to the 2011 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, more than two-thirds of children ages 0-17 had been exposed to violence within the past year, ranging from physical assault to sexual victimization to mental abuse within children's homes, schools, and communities.
In the aftermath of a tragic event, students may not have the coping skills to manage the ensuing stress and emotions, which can lead to poor behavior, loss of instructional time, suspensions, and expulsions. Students may also struggle academically in the classroom and have a harder time paying attention.
There is not much research, however, on the effects of traumatic events on teachers and administrators. According to Edward Mooney, Jr., a high school teacher and adjunct professor of education at Simpson University in California, teachers who see a shooting will experience a series of emotions: pain, confusion, guilt, shame, fear, anger, depression, and—sometimes—acute anxiety.
If teachers do not address their emotions, they may start thinking about the school community and its students in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes and biases. They may be defensive of their own behaviors and experience longer-term health problems. Students may also notice that teachers become more sarcastic, inflexible, and emotionally unstable.
I, too, have repressed raw emotions within me that are triggered with each new death. Why don't we have safe spaces to talk and address how we can prevent further loss?
Teachers Need Supports, Too
That’s why having a strong support system within a school is critical to helping teachers cope with a shooting or the death of a student. Teachers may deal with trauma differently than students, but for both groups, the effects linger long after the funeral. Teachers also need to seek healing and practice self-care.
In addition to counseling services at the school for teachers beyond the initial days of the event, teachers need support groups. We cannot underestimate the value of having colleagues to lean on. Other teachers may be feeling similar things, and it’s important to have weekly check-ins, both with one another and with school leadership, to make sure we all have a comfortable place to talk, share feelings, and realize we are not alone in our grief.
Beyond having those direct supports, it can also be helpful for teachers to get involved in public policy, such as anti-gun mandates, or (if appropriate) to keep in touch with a deceased student’s family.
There are many ways to commemorate the lives of students lost—a balloon drop, lit candles in a vigil, or grave-site visits. Twenty years after my first time attending a funeral for a student, I am still very much haunted by the violence that has taken so many young lives. I worry we won’t know the long-term effects of such trauma on teachers until it is too late.
School districts need to develop a comprehensive care plan to address the emotional, social, and psychological effects of school violence on teachers that goes beyond the logistics of preparing for a disaster scenario. Without a plan, too many young teachers will continue to sit on church pews, wondering if there was something they could have done.