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Trauma team helps students deal with death

Counselors Nicole McGuire, Jen Venz, Jen Hogan, Kathy Wilhoite and Chelsy Newman make up the ISD 192 Trauma Team.

Whether the cause is illness, natural, accidental or intentional, death is hard for those close to the deceased to deal with. When it happens to a student, regardless of age, death impacts more than just family and close friends.

That's why Independent School District 192 has a group of counselors who are specially trained to help when someone in the schools dies. Known informally as the trauma team, the five counselors help those who are hurting to grieve, but they also also help keep everyone else's school days on schedule.

Team members include Boeckman Middle School counselor Nicole McGuire, Farmington Elementary School counselor Jen Venz, Dodge Middle School counselor Jen Hogan, Riverview Elementary School counselor Kathy Willhoite and Farmington High School counselor Chelsy Newman. They informally refer to themselves as the "flight team" because they are the first to respond when a student or staff member dies.

They didn't come by the positions easily. The members have had extensive training in dealing with grief and guiding the healing process. And from that training comes a specific plan of action that has received support of school administrators.

Dealing with death

Every instance is different, Venz said. The circumstances of the death vary, the comprehension level of the other students differs by age and experience. It might be a high school student dying after battling cancer or an elementary school child dying in a car accident. Death can happen at any time, to anyone.

When it does, life in the classrooms is affected. Maybe there's a vacant desk that had a person sitting there the day before, or maybe there's a child who isn't in school because his or her older sibling died the night before. It might be that a past teacher had a good relationship with the deceased -- or that a student had a good relationship with a deceased teacher.

As soon as the trauma team gets word of a death, they go to work. They first participate in a calling tree, putting word out to people like school administrators, nurses, teachers, the school liaison officers and local clergy. In the case where an elementary school child dies, they also try to contact the parents of that child's classmates, just to warn them about what their sons and daughters will hear in school the next day.

On that first day after the death, the team shows up at the school building to hold a staff meeting with teachers. They address things like how to explain the death to the students or where students who are impacted by the loss can go to deal with their emotions. Above all, they caution the teachers to take care of themselves -- especially those who taught the deceased student.

"We're in education. Sometimes we spend so much energy taking care of the kids that we don't take care of ourselves," Hogan said.

By the time the students come to the building, there are about 15 counselors and school psychologists around to help. The trauma team offers to go into the classrooms to talk to students for teachers, but the members are not there to counsel anyone.

"We're not there for counseling that day. We're there to deal with the grieving process," Hogan said.

On the other hand, one of the trauma team members is established as a lead for the grieving process. The lead is not the school counselor for the building dealing with the loss.

"That way they can connect with the students who know them and need them," McGuire said.

After the end of the first school day, the group comes together again to assess how the day went. They meet with school staff, they talk about how students handled the news. Then, they make plans to deal with the next day and the day after that.

Finding strength

Age plays a role in how students deal with death. Younger elementary kids do not necessarily have a full understanding of what death is, other than that a student is simply gone. Older elementary school students are more likely to turn to their teachers, counselors, administrators or parents.

On the other hand, middle school and high school students tend to group together and lean on one another for support. Because that happens, the trauma team set up drop-in centers in the buildings -- quiet classrooms or spaces where students can gather to cry or share memories or simply lean on each other for support.

"It's kind of taken the grieving process out of the hallway and sets up rooms for it," Newman said. "It's not therapy. It's helping these kids grieve in their own way."

Often, the team stays in place for several days, and additional counselors are on hand for the duration. They try to keep the support available through the first week -- usually through the funeral -- so students can take the time they need to work through their grief.

But boundaries have changed over the years, and sometimes the death affects more students or staff than just those in the same building. For instance, a student may have been in Farmington Elementary School last year, but moved to Riverview Elementary this year. That child's death would affect friends and former teachers in two buildings, not just one. If that kind of situation arises, the trauma team has a plan to address the needs at both buildings.

The trauma team also has plans in place in case a teacher dies, and plans to assist students who lose a parent or sibling.

If the grief persists over time, they have resources to refer the child or family to therapy. After all, they're counselors, not therapists. It's a common misconception, McGuire said.

"Just because we're counselors, they think we know what to do. They don't know that after these things, we go home and cry," she said.

Above all, the goal of the trauma team is to create a safe place for students and teachers to grieve, but still maintain a sense of normalcy for the students and teachers who are unaffected by the loss.

Next week: How elementary school children process the concept of death, and how parents can address the topic with their students.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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