Sets rules for
commemorating deaths

For the first time, School District 191 has a policy regulating how schools may memorialize deceased students and staff members.

It would have been useful this past school year, when “a number of” students died, Assistant Superintendent Brian Gersich told the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board, which unanimously approved the measure June 18.

But the policy was in the works before the school year started and wasn’t prompted by reactions to those deaths, Gersich said.

The policy aims for consistency regardless of the “popularity or impact of the student” or the “methodology of the death” — whether car crash, disease, drug use or suicide, Gersich said.

The three-page policy allows temporary memorials, approved by school administration and the director of operations and transportation, to be displayed for one week or until the day of the funeral, whichever is sooner. Allowable memorials include “banners and pictures displayed in a common area that students can avoid such as the media center.”

The time limitation also applies to memorial symbols displayed by individual students or staff on school grounds.

Permanent memorials for students or staff will be limited to endowments, scholarships, books or “items with educational significance.” Memorial trees and other physical markers aren’t permitted.

District facilities cannot be used for memorial services or funerals, but “the superintendent, in conjunction with the District Crisis Response Team, has the discretion to consider schoolwide memorial activities when a crisis event has a significant impact on a majority of students, staff, and community,” the policy says.

Other possible memorial activities include acknowledgment in the yearbook the year after the death occurs; commemorative events held outside the school day sponsored by a class, club or activity; a single symbol such as a plant or bouquet onstage at graduation to represent all deceased members of a graduating class; and a schoolwide moment of silence to be held within two days after notification of a death.

The policy advises schools to treat all deaths the same.

“Having a different approach for death by suicide reinforces prejudice associated with suicide and may be deeply painful to the deceased’s family and friends,” the policy says.

But post-suicide memorials “are particularly important to monitor,” and schools should “balance the community’s need to grieve with the impact that the proposed activity will likely have on students, particularly on those who might be vulnerable to suicide contagion.”

Existing memorials established before the policy won’t be affected, but the district can’t “ethically, morally and physically” fulfill every request for a permanent memorial, said Dana Thompson, special education supervisor, who worked district school psychologists to write the policy.

In his career as an administrator Gersich said few things have been more challenging than responding to deaths, especially of students.

“Young people are not supposed to have tragic events and have their friends taken away from them at a young age,” he said.

Thompson said the policy team consulted resources including the Prior Lake-Savage district’s policy, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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