As the school year draws to a close, Tooele County School District leaders are struggling with a painful challenge they haven’t dealt with before:
How to appropriately honor several students who died during the year, compassionately respond to so many families in grief and support and protect the rest of the student body — especially vulnerable students who may be contemplating suicide to draw attention to their plight.
And due to current numbers, the district is not taking that last concern lightly.
During the 2013-14 school year, seven students — two from Grantsville High School, two from Stansbury High School and three from Tooele High School — died from various causes. There were four suicides, an accidental death, a homicide and one death that has not yet been determined.
In addition, several members of the student body from Dugway High School were affected by a car crash in which some of their peers were injured, one student’s mother was killed and the same student’s father was critically injured.
The string of deaths and tragedies, from the earliest last October to the most recent earlier this month, have made schools places of “hurting and healing, as well as learning,” said Superintendent Scott Rogers of the Tooele County School District.
“We’ve done everything from tree planting to plaques. We’ve retired jerseys. For one of the individuals, in every baseball game they were named as a starter. We’ve had memorial scholarships for at least three students, and then those families all had an opportunity to meet with the secondary director and principal. We’ve had candlelight vigils. We’ve had memorials,” he said. “We care about kids, we care about families, and we feel like we’ve done much to try to promote healing.”
However, said Rogers, who holds a doctorate in psychology, schools and administrators have struggled to create a standardized response for one of the most deadly, if not deadliest, years the school district has ever seen.
“There’s no etiquette or protocol book of do’s and don’t’s that I’m aware of,” he said. “My role and my number one goal is safety and welfare of all students. The mantra I try to live by is, if you do it for one, you do it for all.”
No policy currently exists in the district on what grieving students and families are allowed to do for deceased students on school property, or how those deaths can or should be acknowledged at graduation.
Rogers said the school board is researching similar policies from across the country and will have several discussions on the subject over the summer months. The plan is to implement a policy before the 2014-15 school year begins.
“It definitely is something we’re not just having a one-time discussion about. This is something we’ll be talking about again and again,” he said. “We’re going to have to not just do this as adults. We’re going to have to get students involved.”
However, such a policy is tricky to craft, Rogers said, because of the number of issues a single policy would have to encompass.
One of the greatest concerns within school district administration surrounds how to remember lost students without creating an atmosphere that could entice students thinking of killing themselves to go through with the act, so they, too, will be memorialized, the superintendent said.
“Young people are watching. After one of the suicides, one of the officers reported to us that the kids said, ‘What’s the school going to do?’” said Rogers. “They’re watching, and there are kids that we have on the fringe [of committing suicide]. We’re trying to look for ways to honor students but not set a precedence that potentially sets in a student’s mind who’s on the fringe that, ‘If I can have a bench in my name, maybe I’ll think about it more.’”
A policy will also address what to do when a student, who is at the end of their high school career, dies from any cause. Three of the students who died this year, one from Grantsville and two from Stansbury, would have walked at their respective graduations this week. One, the student from Grantsville, had completed his credit requirement in January and his parents were privately presented with their son’s diploma. Both of the students from Stansbury, however, were just short of getting the requisite credits to graduate.
Rogers said although at least one of the students’ families has requested that they be presented with an honorary diploma, he is concerned that such an act would create a potentially slippery precedent about how a student died and how close he or she was to graduating.
“It’s really a fine line between respecting the family and individual parents, and regardless of the circumstances of the loss, that is a loss to them,” he said. “We are looking into policies regarding honorary diplomas, because as of this time, we don’t have precedence on that. We don’t know where to draw the line — is it at one credit or two credits or five credits or 10 credits?”
Another point of consideration is where to limit the school’s role and let outside agencies take over, he said.
“We’re trying to provide individualized support to students and families. There’s a different role that I and the school board [have] than clergy and counselors,” he said. “As a superintendent, my job is to help the rest of the students and let all of our students move forward and process. We care about the one, definitely, but we also care about the whole. We understand families caring a lot about the one, and we support that, but there are other community services available for individuals.”
And while grieving may never end for some, Rogers said student bodies need to feel like life can continue even in the face of tragedy — especially at graduation, where moving on is at its most literal.
“At a certain point we have to let students move on. There’s nothing wrong with them looking back and express love for their peers who have meant a lot to them over the years,” he said.
“We definitely want our students to be able to grieve and express and remember and have those memorial services like we have and vigils. We’re just trying to balance that and meet all the needs of the students as we move forward,” Rogers added.