Friday, May 1, 2015

The School Library After a Student Death

Yesterday afternoon after my contract day had ended, I headed up to the school office in order to check my mailbox before leaving for the day. As I walked the path, I could hear the sound of a helicopter flying away and could see emergency vehicles in front of the school, but I did not know what had just happened. Pieces of information came to me little by little until the full turn of events unfolded: a car accident had occurred right in front of our campus that would tragically result in the death of one of our students.

Over the past 24 hours, the big gatherings and memorials have generally occurred elsewhere on campus: at the front of the school, on the track, and in the outdoor "pit" arena. Classroom teachers have had to lead the difficult conversations in classrooms that now have an empty seat, guidance counselors have been busy facilitating comprehensive grief counseling services, and campus supervisors have been sweeping the campus to ensure mourning students are safe. It has truly been a group effort of all staff, and amid the activity, I have tried to find the best way to serve my school community from the unique position of Teacher Librarian.

I share my experience here since this is not the type of thing that has a guidebook, at least not one that I was able to find. If your school should unfortunately experience something similar, as most schools eventually do, perhaps you will find some of what I have discovered to be helpful. Also, please share additional ideas that you may have in the comments.
  • Sharing Resources with Staff - At 5:37 pm yesterday, our staff received an email from our principal regarding the student's death, and we were informed that there would be grief counselors available on campus the next day for both students and staff. Reading this at home, I had so many thoughts spinning around in my head. And, as librarians do, I started seeking out resources to help me figure out how to best serve students. While I was a little hesitant to share my findings with the rest of my staff, since perhaps I would be stepping on the toes of our admin or guidance counselors, I did end up sending it via email. Here is a link to the blog post that I sent them. Multiple staff members have responded that the information made them feel more prepared for today, and so I am glad that in the end I hit 'Reply All' to my principal's message.
  • Giving Students a Safe and Welcoming Space - I like to think that the library is always a safe and welcoming place, but today I intentionally opened my doors early and am keeping them open late as I type this. Both in the morning and in the afternoon, students have showed up, even though the times are outside of regular open hours. On any other day, the noise levels in the library can require constant monitoring, but even when filled with students, the space has been uncharacteristically and solemnly quiet. Having asked my friends with backgrounds in counseling for advice, I tried to be present and ready for students, but mostly just gave them space to "be." I can't help but see parallels with the way in which public libraries have been highlighted for serving as sanctuaries for people during recent Ferguson and Baltimore riots. This experience has confirmed for me how the school library can serve an equivalent purpose at a school community level.
  • Making Spaces Available for Others - Since the guidance department at our school is conveniently located on the floor above the library, there are multiple therapists from outside agencies who counsel students in our meeting rooms on a weekly basis. Today, there was a whole team of grief counselors. Even when I ran out of meeting rooms, I offered any space where they and students felt comfortable, even if it meant just picking a corner and pulling chairs around. I was grateful that these professionals were available to help our students and also proud that our students were brave to make themselves vulnerable and accept their assistance.
  • Providing Tissues and Bookmarks - While giving students a place and space, I still wanted to be able to reach out to them to let them know that I care. This morning, after a librarian colleague shared a link to resources on The Healing Place, I arrived at the idea of creating bookmarks with tangible tips for dealing with grief that I borrowed from the site. I printed them out on card stock and placed them next to tissue boxes all throughout the library, including the most popular "hideout" spots. This was something inexpensive that I was able to produce on the spot and make immediately available. My reasoning is also that bookmarks are something small that students can discretely grab to read and re-read later. They are convenient and accessible, but voluntary and not thrust in their faces. Also, as time passes and we need less tissue locations, I can easily consolidate the bookmarks and make them available in an area where, and for as long as, it makes sense. Just so you know, this idea only came after having run through a whole list of other ideas in my mind:
    • Posting information online, similar to the staff resources that I had emailed out, is great in theory, but most kids will not look at staff-hosted web info unless they are required to do so for a graded assignment.
    • Putting up a book display is something I might do later, but even then, the majority of students will not check out the items. Besides having less reach, more time and effort is required before students benefit from the information.
    • Sharing information on bulletin boards is a possibility, but it can be awkward for students to read it unless they happen to be conveniently stuck in the vicinity, and it is not portable.
    • Placing table tents with information delivers it more directly to students, but it can still be awkward if they are sharing a table with other students, and they don't get to take it with them. Plus, students might bend and draw on them, and I would eventually have to decide when to take them down.
  • Creating Maker Spaces - This didn't immediately come to me, but students inspired it! Overnight via social media, students had started a movement to wear blue to school in solidarity and support. Unfortunately, not all students got the message and some actually don't own blue clothing apparently. This is where the library's button-making machine came into use. Some of these blue-less students wanted to show their support, and so they came to the library wanting to design buttons that they could wear instead. The buttons helped, but some students still wanted to create more blue bling, and so I searched Pinterest for ideas. In the end, we used construction paper to make braided bracelets with our school colors. It was an unexpected "aha" moment for me. The students lit up when getting to "do" something. They made some for themselves and also extras that other students were in turn excited to take and wear. I talked to one of the grief counselors who agreed that these types of creative activities are therapeutic, and she has given me the idea of similarly making coloring sheets available. I plan on having these ready on Monday. And, if anyone else should like this idea, just keep in mind her advice to stick to geometric shapes since anything with recognizable images could trigger students negatively.
  • Watching Out for Students in Need - It is a given that those closest to the deceased will need a great amount of support, but there are many students in need of attention even if they were not a best friend. There are students who saw the accident happen who are traumatized. There are students who are traumatized by simply seeing the aftermath of the accident, and that is nearly everyone since the scene had to be investigated for hours before it could be cleared. There are students who were group project partners or who sat nearby in class everyday. There are students who remember going to school together for a number of years and those who never had contact at all, but are simply upset to be reminded of their own mortality. We cannot make assumptions about how people will be affected; any one of these students may require professional attention. For instance, one of the grief counselors explained how already suicidal students may reason that, in contrast to the outpourings of love that they are witnessing, they believe that no one would miss them and so they may as well kill themselves. Since the library may be a place that people seek when retreating from the larger social gatherings on campus, she asked that I watch these students closely and make referrals if I have any suspicions that someone may be in need. Also, a student may seem fine one week only to be triggered much further down the road, and so we all must remain vigilant in paying close attention to the social and emotional states of our students. 
Those are some of the main takeaways I have after our first day back. It is a Friday, though, and so it will be interesting to see what next week brings. Below is an excerpt from The Dougy Center that I really connected with when doing my research:
Grief is ongoing. Grief never ends, but it does change in character and intensity. Many grievers have compared their grieving to the constantly shifting tides of the ocean; ranging from calm, low tides to raging high tides that change with the seasons and the years.
I am sure that our school will similarly experience ebbs and flows as the whole community grieves, and I hope that in some small way, the library is able to provide support and comfort. Thank you for reading, and please keep these families, friends, classmates, and teachers in your thoughts.