When someone in the school community passes away suddenly, it can have a devastating effect on students, faculty and staff.
Whether it’s the death of a student, a parent of a student or a faculty member, those who knew them will experience a wide range of emotions as they try to cope with the loss. That’s when the Sooke School District’s critical incident response team (CIRT) steps in to help.
The 14-member team consists largely of counsellors throughout the district who are deployed to schools when a person in the school community dies, such as the most recent incident in which a Grade 10 Belmont Secondary student died of a suspected drug overdose, or another traumatic event takes place that could effect the school.
“When we lose a member of the school community there is an impact on the school in some ways, but if we don’t pay attention to the experience of it, it can build up and come out in ways that are less healthy,” said Christine McGregor, district principal of student support services, who alongside Janine Brooks, district vice principal of student support services, are the CIRT co-ordinators.
“Our role is helping people to process the experience so that they can come back to whatever their role is at the school – whether it’s as a student or a staff member and feel like they can move on in a healthy way … Processing it in the place where the loss occurred is helpful for people.”
McGregor’s job begins when she receives an email or a phone call from the school’s principal about an incident. From there, she puts the call out to volunteers of the team, who often drop what they’re doing to provide support. The team takes a collaborative approach, working with the principal, vice principal, school counsellors and others to identify who will be impacted.
Once at the school, the team sets up a safe room such as in a library where people who are looking for support can go to speak to a counsellor or write a card. McGregor often sees a range of emotions from those seeking support.
“It can be surprise, guilt, anger and it’s all okay,” she said, adding incidents may remind students of an experience they had in the past. “I could be something that they [students] bring up. They’ll say ‘I don’t know if this is okay, but we had to put our dog down on the weekend, I’m feeling sad from that and now I’m hearing this [news]’ or it might be someone in their family is ill and they heard something in the announcement and they start to wonder about their own family member.”
The team, which is deployed roughly two to eight times a year, will assist in other ways as well. Members will help the principal draft a message about the incident to staff, help with the script that’s read aloud to students during school or help with the letter that is distributed to parents. They will also help staff wash dishes or relieve them of recess duty so they can cope. The team provides support for anywhere from two days to a week.
While McGregor admits it can take a toll on her emotionally, she believes the service is making a difference in the lives of students and staff. For example, the team was deployed when Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot and killed at Parliament Hill in 2014, to provide support to students in schools with a large military population.
“It’s a presence in the school, that validation that we recognize what you’re going through something difficult and we’re here for you,” McGregor said.