Managing Anniversaries and Memorials as a Part of School and Campus Safety Efforts
The recent anniversaries of active shooter situations at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech College, and Santa Monica College, as well as emergencies that have caused loss of life in other school and campus communities, bring to mind the importance of proactively planning for incident anniversaries and deciding as a community how to memorialize people involved. Community members may have difficulty emotionally managing anniversaries. In addition, anniversaries can be exacerbated by others wishing to visit, view, or interact with the incident location in some way, whether they were invited to or not. Schools and institutions of higher education (IHEs) will want to ensure that they are prepared to handle press inquiries, expectations from their own stakeholders, and increased attention from the public near the time of an incident anniversary.
Memorials are important for processing and healing after an incident. Deciding how to remember those involved in an incident can cause stress within the school community and may take much longer than expected. Managing this process in an inclusive and supportive way can increase the health, safety, and resilience of a school community.
The summer is a great time to consider approaches for the upcoming academic year. To help schools and IHEs manage their engagement with the anniversary of a difficult event and make decisions about creating memorials, the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Safe and Supportive Students and its Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance (TA) Center developed Paying Tribute to Deceased School Community Members. Below is a discussion of the information included, along with additional related topics and resources.
Considerations for Anniversaries and Memorials
An anniversary is the date on which an event took place in a previous year. Schools and IHEs do not always get a choice in participating in the anniversary of an event. If a school or IHE had a role in the event, either through a direct effect (e.g., a student or faculty death) or because the school played a significant part in response or recovery (e.g., if the school was used as a shelter after an earthquake), it can still expect to be seen as part of the anniversary. School leaders may be asked for comments by the press, respond to the nearby community asking what activities will be conducted, or need to initiate conversations within the school community on how to participate in the anniversary. “Handling Anniversaries” on page 6 of Paying Tribute to Deceased School Community Members provides guidelines for organizing anniversary activities with important considerations in mind.
Community Anniversaries May Involve Schools, Too
If a school has served as a shelter site, significant meeting place for recovery groups, or other important location during a community disaster response/recovery, community members may want to include the school in incident anniversary activities. It is always a school’s or IHE’s choice whether to participate in these activities. Whether or not the school participates, it’s important to include that anniversary in annual safety plans to prepare for redirecting visitors, managing donations, and managing financial support from the community. It may be helpful to coordinate with local public safety partners to align with their plans and receive assistance or guidance in navigating community anniversary events.
A memorial is something established to remind people of a person or event. Schools and IHEs voluntarily decide if and when to create a memorial and what type. Memorials may be permanent, semipermanent, or temporary tributes to people injured or lost in the incident. They may take a physical form (gardens, plaques), be digital products (Websites, videos), or occur as an activity (awareness-raising walk, community service).
The process of planning a memorial can be challenging; there may be competing motivations in suggesting certain types of memorials, some stakeholders may still be working through their reactions to the event, or the larger community may want to participate in the decision-making process. Paying Tribute to Deceased School Community Members can help schools and IHEs make plans and policies before an incident occurs, create an inclusive group that decides what memorial(s) to choose, and think ahead to having those sometimes-difficult conversations.
Behavior Resulting From Trauma
Students and staff may not be able to behave as they normally would, given their process of recovery. They may have difficulty coming to agreement or even deciding whether to participate in planning memorials. It can be helpful to remember what common reactions to trauma look like and continue to provide mental health care or remind people to practice self-care. Coping with Trauma: Grief, Loss and Tragic News and Events provides a concise list of common reactions to trauma and offers coping strategies. Reviewing this information before or during memorial planning can assist with the process.
Remembering Students After Suicide
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center expanded on the guidance in Paying Tribute to Deceased School Community Members to develop Memorials: Special Considerations When Memorializing an Incident, which includes a list of do’s and don’ts for creating, managing, and retiring memorials. It gives specific examples of the types of memorials created by students for students, such as commemorative T-shirts, articles in the school paper, and Websites. It also describes how to manage remembrance of a student who has committed suicide, which is a situation with special considerations for supporting students’ mental health. Using these proven practices can help to prevent retraumatization and protect surviving students.
Integrating Anniversaries and Memorials Into an Emergency Operations Plan
Because there are aspects of incident anniversaries and memorials that schools and IHEs may not be able to control, it is important to include these situations in the Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). These can include handling unexpected public intrusion onto campus by the public or press, requests for inclusion in activities by the public or press, and other interruptions to support of the school community during a difficult time. Sometimes the public’s wish to assist can become a challenge, if no plans are in place to receive unsolicited goods, funds, or services. Unsolicited donations are those that were not requested during a fundraiser or other campaign, and thus may be difficult to control and manage. ED, REMS TA, and Federal partner Federal Emergency Management Agency developed Managing Donations and Volunteers as a Part of Education Agency Emergency Management to assist in planning for potential unsolicited donations. This fact sheet provides information on managing donations and volunteers, finding partners to help with these activities, and integrating donations and volunteer management plans into a high-quality EOP. The list of key resources includes Websites with more information on these important topics.