I’ll never forget that moment in August 2016 when I received a text from a parent—the text an educator never wants to receive. Then my phone rang. I could tell from the caller ID that the call was from my teaching partner. The mournful tears of my co-worker verified the tragedy. Lafayette Middle School (LMS) had lost a member of our Commodore family in a horrific car accident.
Death at any age brings a variety of emotions: shock, numbness, disbelief, anger, and sadness. The unexpected death of a teenager compounds these emotions, as youth mourn the loss of a friend.
As word traveled throughout our community of Oxford, MS, about this student’s death, I began to receive phone calls and texts from our student council family and others. Our LMS student council president was the first member to contact me. With a quivering voice he said, “Mrs. Allen, we have to plan now. This is so much more than buttons.” By Sunday night, LMS student council members were well into the planning phase of what would take place in the following days.
Focus on Communication
LMS student council members quickly designed a platform to include all members in the aspect of planning events around the loss of this student. While the original communication took place using group text messaging because of the immediacy of the tragedy, members found it difficult to organize plans through text messages. As the brainstorming subsided, it was time to bring to the forefront the planning of each event. Our student council secretary initiated the idea of corresponding through the use of Google Docs. This platform allowed members to give instant feedback and organize information for each event.
Next, our student members began to establish communication with our building principal and the district superintendent. Our student council president took the initiative to communicate the council’s ideas to superintendent Dr. Adam Pugh. Two other members stepped up to communicate with our building principal. These key student communicators reported that a crisis team was in place to help students cope with student loss during the week. This communication allowed members to focus on the events to help students cope beyond the initial arrival at school Monday morning.
As their adviser, I listened to their needs and allowed the students to plan accordingly. When the kids asked questions that I could not answer, student leaders and I would contact our school administrators. Student council members found it imperative to offer comfort to classmates, teachers, parents, and members of our community, because they understood that students, as well as adults, grieve differently.
Determining Ways to Honor a Classmate
LMS student council members pursued multiple avenues to help our grieving school community. One hurdle members faced was the issue of separation of church and state, but students took full control of planning a location for prayer and hosting a citywide candlelight vigil.
Student leaders initially organized a place for students to gather for daily prayer. The prayers were student-led and often occurred before school and during breaks. This allowed students to comfort friends who may not be in class with each other. School leaders, teachers, and parents could be found offering support to students as they met and prayed with classmates.
The site of the daily prayer meetings morphed into a makeshift memorial site, where student leaders provided a place for their classmates to leave mementos. These included letters to the family, photos, flowers, and other tokens students accumulated. Items collected at the memorial were then given to the family.
Our student council members also wanted to offer a tribute which the entire student body could embrace. To show support for family of the lost, one LMS student council member decided to create a memorial ribbon using red (our school color) and an anchor (the school emblem). These ribbons were given to the student body and school community. Students wore the ribbons to memorialize the loss of their friend. These ribbons were found on students’ hats, backpacks, and gym bags months after the student’s death. Memorial ribbons were made available at the site where students met for prayer.
Student council members also wanted to reach out to the larger community. This led to the students taking full control of hosting an off-site candlelight vigil, which they hoped all people in town would feel welcome to attend. The first major detail was to locate a space. Our principal was able to secure an area near the funeral home. After the location was secured, members needed to plan the details of the memorial.
Council members set the time of the vigil to occur after the visitation, so family members would be able to participate. Our LMS student council president made arrangements to use candles from a local church. Our student council secretary contacted local youth leaders and asked for their assistance. Other student council members created social media posts to share information about the candlelight vigil with those in the community. Many people felt the vigil helped students find closure to such a devastating loss.
Outside of the events the student council organized, the cheerleaders had special hair bows made to wear with the student’s initials on them. Another child had bracelets made with the student’s name and the date he went to heaven on them and gave them to the student body.
Another way to honor a student can come by way of monetary donations. Memorial donations in lieu of flowers have become the new norm. Students can ask family members to provide at least one charity of interest to which donations can be made. If family members do not select a charity, consider selecting causes that reflect the interests of the one who is being memorialized or those that help fight against the cause of death.
For instance, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital helps kids with childhood cancer; SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) serves as a peer-to-peer youth education organization (the group that once targeted student drunk driving has expanded to cover substance abuse, distracted driving, and more); the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention raises awareness and funds scientific research to aid those affected by suicide; The Humane Society aids animals; the American Heart Association offers help for those with cardiovascular issues; the Make-A-Wish Foundation grants wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses.
In the days that followed, the deceased student’s mother shared how touched she was by the school’s response to her son’s death. “I was able to take comfort in the support and events that the school had organized,” she said. “[It’s] impossible to put into words how it makes a mama feel to know the school district let all the children in the eighth grade out of school that day to attend his funeral … The notes and cards and memorials from the children and teachers that followed in the days after were incredibly touching, to see how deeply his life on this earth had impacted the people he came in contact with.”
Student Leaders Set a Precedent
Less than three months after the devastating loss of an LMS student, tragedy struck again in our community. This time, students would mourn the loss of a Lafayette High School Commodore. Little did LMS student council members know that the plans they had set in place 11 weeks prior would become the stepping stones for the high school. High school students immediately sought guidance from LMS student council members and advisers. Middle-level student council members were eager to offer a helping hand, and the information shared with high school leaders allowed the senior high students to plan similar events.
Take Time for Reflection
A major part of any LMS student council project/event is reflection after the event is complete. This key step allows council members to learn through their experiences. In this case, members’ main concerns after carrying out memorial events for the deceased LMS student dealt with their actions being appropriate and enough. One member voiced how she could not believe how well council members held their emotions while providing outlets for their classmates to grieve.
As their adviser, I wanted to divert students’ plans numerous times throughout the planning stages. I am so glad that I did not corrupt their ideas. Student leaders are leaders in any situation; their voices are filled with purpose and meaning.
Student leadership is so much more than homecomings and dances.Student leadership is about celebrating the milestones and embracing the events of life. Student leadership is the heart of a school community.
“Know that no gesture is too small to impact the life of a grieving family. Don’t be afraid to stop … and say something,” shared the deceased student’s mother, who notes that it is important to understand that the grief/loss continues on day after day; the emotions don’t cease to exist after the first few weeks have passed. It may be easy for everyone else’s lives to go on, but as a parent who has lost their child, grief makes time fly by and yet stand still forever, she says. “Many months have now passed, and as I … continually run into teachers, students, and staff, I am touched by their stories of him, their kind words, and that they are still praying for and thinking about me and my family. Each and every card, gesture, and memento told me he was greatly loved and is greatly missed.”
Penelope Allen is a math teacher and student council adviser at Lafayette Middle School in Oxford, MS. She served on the 2015 NASC Advisory Committee and was the Region VIII finalist for the 2013 NASC Warren E. Shull Middle Level Adviser of the Year.