In September 2015, a Year 9 became unwell while playing football with his friends at lunchtime. As he walked to the staff on duty, he collapsed, unable to breathe. Staff at school battled to resuscitate him by performing CPR and attempting to administer his Ventolin inhaler. Then local GPs attended, then paramedics and finally the air ambulance. He was rushed to the local hospital and then to the Evelina in London. Sadly, his asthma attack was fatal.
Note: this is Liam’s valedictory blog as part of the Heads’ Roundtable Core Group having stepped down this academic year.
For any Headteacher, this scenario is the worst that the job can throw at you. We spend our waking (and a fair amount of sleeping) hours worrying anyway, but a tragedy is where the whole of the school community looks to you. In this moment you stand alone, you set the tone; everyone relies on you to tell them what to do. No-one thinks that you have no idea, have had no training or can also be frozen in the moment.
In hindsight, I wish that I had had a crisis plan in place, at least giving us something to hold onto. Ultimately a plan will help, but it won’t enable you to set the tone and support your community. I hope what follows will give some guidance.
First, I would recommend buying ‘The Clouds That Can Surround a School’ by Shane Moran. This book is a fantastic resource for school leaders, setting out in simple terms how to respond to such an event and, even more importantly, how to prepare. Each chapter has a clear focus, helping readers to reflect on how they would respond to each element of the critical incident.
The human fallout from such an incident should never be underestimated, nor how each individual will cope. Shane Moran develops this throughout his book, starting with “recognising when you get ‘walloped’”. He advises you to look around to understand those who are “frozen” and those who start to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As he points out: “regardless of its nature, a critical incident has a strong effect on all those at the centre of it”.
My tips are:
- Have a plan with key jobs with a member of staff named.
- Run through scenarios to ensure that everyone is prepared.
First Few Weeks
- When the crisis happens, look out for everyone who attended the incident, who went to help or witnessed the event. This will probably include those closest to the aftermath, the friends, their parents and members of staff. Perhaps not much support will be needed at this point, but make a written list of names because they will need support later.
- When thinking about a student’s friendship group, take the time to investigate further to ensure you know all friendship groups. We missed the group of friends that played games online against each other.
- Grab and I mean GRAB every offer of help and support. In East Sussex, the services for schools to help support staff and students was simply not there after the initial incident. We had edpsyc support on the day we had to announce his passing, but nothing after that. Everything else was left to us to sort out. The staff had debriefs with the local GPs and the police in the immediate weeks, but that was because it was offered and we gratefully took up their offers. The Evelina Trust and the surgeon who tried to save his life were amazing with their support. It was her work with staff and his friends which I think helped them the most.
- Find a trauma specialist and pay for them to work with individuals and groups. Yes, it is a cost, but with no long-term support at all from the Local Authority, this was vital.
- Run assemblies about grief, for every year group. This is very hard, but it is important that they see you dealing with the emotions that they may not understand. Take the time to explain that whatever they are feeling is the way that they are dealing with their grief.
- Get help and support for yourself. You may not feel like it, but remember that the ‘wallop’ that Moran describes will come, so it is so important that you take the time to deal with what has happened yourself. Viv Grant talks about this a great deal on twitter and I would recommend getting in touch, but contacting a counsellor and telling people gives them ‘permission’ to do the same. At this time people don’t want a hero, they want a human.
- Show emotions. Especially as a man, I felt it so important to speak to his friends (who were all boys) about how I was feeling.
- Ensure that everyone who wants to go to the funeral is able to. This includes staff too.
- Make sure your pastoral teams are keeping a close eye on other students. Their lives continue, with their own difficulties and tragedies. You have to ensure that they don’t fall through any gaps.
- Make sure you work out what you will do to mark the anniversary. Speak to friends, siblings and parents about what they would want to do. In our own case, they decided not to mark the day of his death but to celebrate his birthday with a ‘pizza and Coke’ day (the student’s favourite meal). Each year since his death, we have put on events to raise money for the Evelina Trust and the Air Ambulance. This year, his friends raised almost £3,000. For them, it has been an event that they feel they make a difference. It brings them together as a group, a year group and a school.
- Continue to meet to discuss how you are feeling so that everyone knows that you are still all dealing with the loss, no matter the differences in how you are dealing with it.
For me, the hardest part was the advice on being prepared. Just reading the book brought the whole incident in my school flooding back. But Moran is right: being prepared for any incident is vital – and is just as important for your senior leadership team as it is for you. He lists job roles, probable levels of leadership to fulfil them and what staff will be responsible for. At the end, there are a number of useful scenarios for you and your team to work through, even if you would rather think of anything else.
Managing a sudden death in the school community (LGfL)
Talking about death with your little one (CBeebies)
How to support a bereaved child (Video, Child Bereavement UK)
What helps grieving children and young people (pdf)
Or you are always welcome to contact me via twitter @LiamHCollins