Making Rules About How Children Grieve: Your Education Dollars at Work

I read a piece in the Missoulian this evening with a mixture of frustration and dismay. It seems that Missoula County Public Schools District, led by its “safe schools coordinator,” has decided to invest time and resources into developing a policy that polices how students express their grief following the death of another student, staff member, or person from the community.

Let’s put aside the absurdity of an administrative position like the safe schools coordinator. Let’s put aside the obscene misallocation of resources a position like that entails, not to mention the resources spent on a “sweep” of one high school to catalog the number of memorials there. Instead, let’s talk about giving students the space to grieve.

According to the Missoula draft policy, students shouldn’t be able to grieve at school:

At an MCPS committee meeting Wednesday, licensed clinical social worker Diane Haddon told the trustees how the recent death of her best friend made it hard to visit some favorite places.

“You don’t want to have school settings become memorial sites,” Haddon said. “Don’t have the school add more occasions for grief. This needs to be a place of living.”

Part of living is dealing with death, and students deserve the same space that adults are given to express their feelings. When a co-worker dies, do offices disallow memorials? Of course not. Sensible bosses and business recognize the importance of remembering someone, and just as adults spend important, meaningful time in their offices and workplaces, students spend incredible amounts of time in schools. To refuse to give them the space to heal in a place laden with memories is not only a futile, but cruel, gesture.

Worse yet, the MCPS draft policy defines some students as not worthy of memory at all:

What school leaders don’t want to do is make it easier for students to dwell upon the suicides of classmates. The draft policy has an asterisk noting that no memorials are allowed for people who “died by suicide or while involved in drug-related or other criminal activity.”

“I think it’s entirely appropriate to restrict memorials on suicides,” said Trustee Toni Rehbein, a former school administrator. “We should not be idealizing or making a way for a person to appear important (by suicide).”

This may come as a surprise to Ms. Rehbein, but even students who commit suicide are important, and deserve to be remembered. So do students who’ve become involved in crime or who’ve abused substances–a disorder not unlike depression. How dare a school district define some students as unworthy of remembrance? Instead of worrying about glorifying suicide, the trustees might want to consider the impact of not letting students deal with death and grief. No student’s death deserves to be met with silence, no matter what moral code the MCPS wants to impose.

There’s nothing worse in teaching than seeing students experience the loss of a loved one, because there aren’t many words of comfort to offer someone experiencing death for the first time. It’s an incredibly powerless feeling. The one thing schools and educators can do is to acknowledge that their students are human beings, not automatons whose grief can be channeled into “appropriate responses.”

Dealing with grief in schools doesn’t require policy; it requires respect and sensitivity, just as it does everywhere else.

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  • “You don’t want to have school settings become memorial sites,” Haddon said. “Don’t have the school add more occasions for grief. This needs to be a place of living.”

    Part of living is being able to move past grief. That means you have to grieve, and if that grief is shared, all the better, since isolation is more damaging than grief. She seems to be applying her own model to a broad group of people.

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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