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How can schools help students heal after a death? A new Utah toolkit shows the way

An evidenced-based digital resource offers guidance from Day 1 following a traumatic event and on through school milestones

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Friends and family members of Paul Tahi and Tivani Lopati at a memorial built in their honor in West Valley on Jan. 14, 2022.

Friends and family members of 15-year-old Paul Tahi and 14-year-old Tivani Lopati console one another at a memorial built in their honor in West Valley on Jan. 14, 2022. The two teenagers were shot and killed on a sidewalk the day before and another teen, also 15, was shot and critically injured.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The day before residents of Enoch learned that eight family members had died in a mass murder-suicide, school counselors in Iron County School District were reviewing portions of the latest guidance from the State School Board on healing schools after a loss.

Little did they know they would be putting the toolkit to use the following day.

“When that incident happened, that’s what we pulled from,” said Tim Marriott, the Iron County School District’s counseling and student services coordinator.

“It’s super helpful because you’re in these crisis situations and sometimes it’s hard to put words together. So having a document that had some of that sample language that we can pull from was extremely helpful,” he said.

The 38-page digital resource, “Healing Our Schools After a Loss; A Toolkit for Schools Responding to a Suicide or Sudden Death,” offers guidance from Day 1 following a traumatic event and on through school milestones such as graduation, school dances or sporting events that might stir emotions or could be periods of increased risk for some students and staff.

It also provides tips on talking about suicide, including guidelines on school memorials, recommending that they be monitored and time limited.

“Have a consistent policy that no permanent memorials are allowed, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death. Treat all deaths in the same manner. If there is a history of dedicating the yearbook (or a page of the yearbook) to students who have died by other causes, that policy is equally applicable to a student who has died by suicide,” the guidance states.

The evidence-based guidance also includes templates of communications to students, families and the larger community.

Marriott said Iron County School District officials customized the messages “to work for our district and so in my mind, it was an extremely valuable document at that point in time where trying to craft some on your own can be difficult because your emotions are everywhere. In my mind, it was a valuable document,” he said.

Marriott said as word spread about the deaths of the Haight family — including five children who were in preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school — families were reaching out to the school district for resources on how to discuss the events with their children.

The digital toolkit contains those resources, too, for which Marriott said he was particularly grateful because he knew that the specialists who developed it had properly vetted them. The school district had reviewed them, too, and provided lists to parents seeking guidance about the heart-wrenching conversations they would be having with their kids.

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Tim Marriott, with the Iron County School District, speaks during a press conference regarding the killing of a family of seven by a relative in Enoch, Iron County, on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. Police say a father killed his five children, his wife and a relative before taking his own life.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

“That was another thing that I appreciate about this document, that there were some other external resources that it provided that were at our fingertips versus, you know, trying to decipher what’s legit and what’s not by just kind of doing some searches ourselves,” he said.

Cathy Davis, suicide prevention specialist and crisis team leader for the Utah State Board of Education, is one of three authors of the guidance document.

Davis said one of the most important protective factors in times of crisis is connectedness.

“My mantra is ‘Never worry alone,’” she said. “I don’t know how many crisis responses I’ve been in on but what we really need is to connect to one another and help each other through really hard times,” Davis said.

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Friends and family members of 15-year-old Paul Tahi and 14-year-old Tivani Lopati build a memorial in their honor in West Valley on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. The two teenagers were shot and killed on a sidewalk Thursday morning and another teen, also 15, was shot and critically injured.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

There are four key components to crisis response: readiness, response, recovery and renewal, Davis said.

There’s no way to predict when a school will have to deal with a traumatic event such as the shooting deaths of two Hunter High School students that also left another classmate critically wounded one year ago.

Schools also deal with sudden deaths of students, educators and community members, which can result from motor vehicle crashes, medical events or suicide.

Piute High School, with a fall enrollment of 144 students, is grieving the recent shooting death of 16-year-old Jacqueline Nunez. A 17-year-old male classmate has been arrested in the case.

“Everything that has happened over the past couple of weeks, we couldn’t predict. We feel powerless. But where we can control things is having that ongoing readiness,” Davis said.

In recent years, growing numbers of schools have prioritized student mental health and wellness by hiring more counselors and licensed clinical social workers.

“We’ve got 10 licensed therapists in our schools, we want more and they’re hard to come by. They are just a very needed profession at this point in time so we’re grateful for the ones that we have and they do tremendous work,” said Marriott.

Marriott said the school district’s response is ongoing and district officials are mindful of the mental health needs of educators and staff, who are also grieving the loss of the Haight family as they support students.

The schools in Enoch will be dealing with the tragedy for some time, he said.

The funeral for Tausha Haight, the Haight children — Macie, 17; Briley, 12; 7-year-old twins Ammon and Sienna; and Gavin, 4 — and Gail Earl, Tausha’s mother and the children’s grandmother, is scheduled for Friday.

“There’s still lots of sensitive and emotional times I think will come from that,” Marriott said.

The teachers, counselors and mental health professionals “have just been incredible. I walk out of their schools just emotional as I watch them do their work. The hard part about this is, they are really hurting themselves,” he said.

The violent mass loss of life took a toll on the entire community, whether or not people were personally acquainted with the Haight family, Marriott said.

“Just to see them (educators, counselors and therapists) do their work and just be there for the students, I don’t have the words to express my gratitude for them,” Marriott said.

Davis said the toolkit has resources for the district’s ongoing response but emphasizes that it is an evolving document.

“We’re going to find that these situations will inform our practices. There’s no such thing as a perfect crisis response. I want there to be,” she said.

Again, what people need in times of crisis is to feel connected and that they belong, Davis said.

“What they need most is you to rally around them to say, ‘I don’t know if this is going to be OK right away, but I’m going to be here with you and help you get through this really hard time.’”