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School board approves policy banning public memorials

The Farmington School Board has approved a new policy that does away with public memorials to deceased students and staff members.

The policy, proposed by district counselors, is intended to address several issues and make the grieving safer and more productive for students.

The policy does away with benches or trees or other physical reminders of classmates, but there will still be processes in place under the new policy to help students work through the grief process. The idea, director of educational programs Barb Duffrin said Tuesday, is to make sure there are trained counselors there to work with students as they grieve.

Under the policy, counselors will set up rooms where students can go to talk or think or write about their feelings. Dodge Middle School counselor Jen Hogan said at a board meeting earlier this month that students might be encouraged to create something for the deceased student’s parents.

“We want to support students in their grief,” Duffrin said this week.

The discussion that led to the new policy began seven years ago, when district counselors attended a four-day training session about trauma response. There had been several deaths in the district at the time, and the counselors started talking about a more formal policy to guide school responses in such situations.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last of three public discussions board members had about the proposed policy, and they still had a few questions. Board member Laura Beem asked whether taking away an opportunity for students to grieve privately might be protecting them from a danger that doesn’t really exist.

“Sometimes I wonder, what are we protecting the kids from, because sometimes it’s better to deal with that grief and be exposed to that grief,” Beem said.

Board member Melissa Sauser suggested schools could make decisions on a case by case basis, but Duffrin said that could cause problems if one student was memorialized and another was not.

“We’re advocating for common practice across the board,” Duffrin said. “When a family is in a crisis situation … it is not the best time to be coming up with a plan.”

There are other issues with permanent memorials to students. While student deaths are infrequent, over the years they can add up and a school can start to feel a bit like a cemetery. Students move on, but the memorials stay.

There can also be problems with a living memorial, like a tree, if there is no agreement about who is supposed to take care of it. If a memorial tree dies, counselors have said, that can create additional trauma for students.

“School is a place for learning, and it’s supposed to be a hopeful place,” Duffrin said when she introduced the policy change in April. “Even though at the time it might feel like we want to recognize the student or the staff member, we need to think about the effect over time.”

There is also the question of maintenance. While students and families often pay to install a memorial, it is up to the school district to care for it.

Because students have to be in school, Farmington High School counselor Chelsea Newman said, the goal is to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable learning.

“All life matters, and I think it’s important to keep that on the front of the brain,” she said.

The board talked briefly about tabling the policy to get input from students, but board chair Julie Singewald pointed out there had been no opposition to the plan raised to board members. She suggested bringing the policy back for discussion in a year.

The policy change passed with a 5-0 vote.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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