School division provides counselling following student’s death

May 17, 2021, 4:25 pm

Lynne Little, the Director of Education with South East Cornerstone School Division.

Kevin Weedmark spoke last week with Lynn Little, director of education with the South East Cornerstone School Division, about the school division’s response to the tragic death of a Grade 12 McNaughton High School student, Colleen McPhee, in a vehicle rollover. Following is the full interview:

I would like to begin by expressing our deepest condolences on behalf of the board and all of us to Colleen’s parents and family, and friends and classmates, and the community, as it affects the whole community without a doubt. Our thoughts and prayers are with Colleen, those who loved her, those who knew her. It’s a very difficult time and I just want to begin with stressing that.

What procedures or policies does the school division have in place when a tragic event like this occurs?
We have established, and unfortunately often have to rely on, our tragic events guide. It’s a guide that has been put together that during a tragic event when the shock and the grief and the disbelief that envelopes all of those that are impacted, including the staff and the support who guide the students and families, it’s a place for us to turn, to go through in the immediate days following the event. We have a plan that’s in place that’s there, that’s ready for us to follow. It’s consistent and it’s all laid out. So the guide really allows folks to manage the tragedy with a peace of mind knowing that important considerations will be tended to by providing this framework of supports for staff so they can support other staff, students, parents and community.

Specifically for students, what sort of supports are made available?
In Southeast Cornerstone, we’re fortunate, we have 16 family liaison counsellors—counsellors that work in the schools directly with children and the families, and their role is to support during all times but in times of tragedy as well. So we will often redeploy staff to the school and ensure that we have additional staff available to talk if a student wishes to talk or just to sit in the comforting presence of another, to have a group dialogue, to lead some of those conversations through, as it may be a first experience for a youth with loss, or it may be that they have lost someone else close in their life and it brings those pieces back. So we always ensure that we have supports that are available with people that are trained that can work with the students.

And do you have the same sort of thing available for staff when something like this happens?
Yes, we do. We know that students often have a connection with a staff member in their school, it might be a teacher or an EA or any adult in the building. So we work to ensure that staff are being debriefed and are able to, if comfortable, also be there for the students as well as each other. The staff also then rely on those supports that are coming in to support them as well, as often, the counsellor from that location, from that school, will also be in attendance, but there will be counsellors from outside of the community from other portions of our school division. So they’re able to then provide some of that support. We also bring in additional teachers on the day or days directly following to allow teachers time for themselves if they need it, time to spend time with other students if they need it, just time—time to grieve. So we assure that those additional staff members are there and a substitute teacher or EA can take over if required at a moment’s notice.

So in this case, were there quite a large number of extra teachers available and quite a large number of counsellors on site?
Yes, we deployed about half a dozen additional counsellors. We also had the support of Mental Health. Mental Health provided a counselling service also, so another individual who was able to join, which we absolutely appreciate and then there were substitute teaching staff as well on site. They’ll stay there as long as there is need, and we take that cue from the staff and the students. When the counsellors are there and no longer are students dropping by and there’s just kind of a slowing down of those pieces, then we’ll slowly begin to withdraw, but we won’t withdraw all at once. Grieving is so variant, it’s so different for folks, and if we think they’re doing okay and then a few days go by and the need increases—perhaps it’s the anniversary like a week later for example—we’ll bring more in, but it’s totally based on need. So as much as the students need, we try to ensure that there’s support there.

In a typical case, is there usually a certain percentage of students who will access those counselling services? I imagine there’s some students who’d be comfortable talking to a counsellor and other students who’d be more comfortable just talking to their friends. Do you know how many make use of the counselling services?
It greatly depends, and I think that’s one of the pieces that we share that staff in some of the preparation, when we start to the students first thing the next day, is ensuring that they have somebody that they’re reaching out to and somebody that is there to support them. Sometimes it will be parents or siblings or friends or whomever it happens to be, it may be clergy. Just ensuring that folks know there is somebody and if they require somebody, we do have the supports there during the day.

How often across the school division do you see an incident like this? How often is there some sort of tragic incident that impacts one school or another?
You know Kevin, sadly there are more occasions during the course of a year than one might think. With a system as large as ours, with as many communities, students, staff, parents, as there are in the system, there are several each year.

What kind of impacts do you usually see in the school community after an incident like this?
Each individual grieves in a different way and in a different timeline. So it is generally encouraged to come back to attend to school. Students and staff come back to school to be with their peers, stay engaged. There might be some students who struggle to get back to academics or focus more than others do, it’s really a variant. We ensure that we focus and support that grieving process and beginning to heal, and then eventually turn back, when it’s appropriate, to the academics. It’s very personal, it’s very different for folks, and it’s different for our staff. Dependant upon the situation, our staff will grieve in different ways as well. So we do try to support students and staff as they require and just ensure that people know it’s okay to feel as you feel.

What is the role of the local school leadership and what is the role of the school division in responding to an incident like this? Does your policy break down who is responsible for what?
We’re all members of a team who collectively work to provide support to those who will be providing support and to those who require support, is how I would look at it, that’s the lens. School leadership is absolutely critical in this work. They best know their students, their families, their staff and their communities, and the system leadership works with them to arrange to bring in supports that they feel are appropriate. They’ll often let us know what they feel they will need and how much and how frequently. Then we’re there to work through all of these different steps with them, as often with a loss, it’s difficult to deal with and grasp. So we can kind of be that lens that has all of these processes in place there for support. We all have roles in the process and each role is established to ultimately support the students, families and the staff.

In an incident like this, how do you see school division’s role in communicating with the school community and the wider community in the aftermath of an incident like this?
The goal of the system is to provide, as we’ve talked about the support, to provide them what’s required without being overbearing or intrusive. It is our desire to provide a calm and supportive presence, advise those who requiring advising and arrange for supports as we can. So we try to be there to provide all that we can without being overbearing, just to be there to support.