Schools and Memorials
What’s a school to do?
By Donna L. Schuurman, Ed.D., FT, Executive Director, The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families
When a school community experiences the suicide death of a student or school employee, they’re confronted with challenging decisions at an emotionally charged time regarding whether, and how, to memorialize the deceased. Absent a solid policy, with a short timeframe to make decisions, school leaders must balance the wishes of the family, the needs of grievers, and the importance of avoiding the possibility of contagion through romanticizing or glamorizing the mode of death.
Conflicting viewpoints on schools and memorialization emerge in the professional literature. A 2011 consensus document (with 24 professional reviewers) addresses this and additional topics, in AFTER A SUICIDE: A Toolkit for Schools, available in a free download from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. One of the fundamental guidelines is this: “In all cases, schools should have a consistent policy so that suicide deaths are handled in the same manner as any other deaths.”
In practical terms, whatever the school does to memorialize the death of a student in a car crash or a teacher who succumbs to cancer, that same policy should apply to the student or teacher who dies of suicide. “If there is a history of dedicating the yearbook (or a page of the yearbook) to students who have died, that policy is equally applicable to a student who has died by suicide…if there is a tradition of including a tribute to deceased students who would have graduated with the class, students who have died by suicide should likewise be included.” The same principle applies to memorial services and other types of memorialization in the deceased’s memory (scholarships, school newspaper coverage, memorials on school grounds, etc.).