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As two longtime teachers at Bangor High School, we would like to respond to the Bangor Daily News’ Nov. 29 article about Principal Paul Butler’s intercom announcement about a student’s death. There is no easy way to inform students of a death, especially one of a fellow student, and even more heartbreaking, a death by suicide. The tone of the article painted a picture of a cold, desensitized staff. Please don’t for one second believe that Bangor High School is run by people who don’t care about kids. That article got the climate of our school all wrong.
Disseminating information in a large school is challenging. When needing to communicate with 1,200 kids, especially in the age of social media, time is of the essence. The administration learned of Mark’s passing just before classes began for the day Nov. 20. No school is ever fully prepared for losing one of its own, but the crisis team mobilized immediately and communicated quickly with department heads and teachers. Unfortunately, because news travels fast, some students already knew about Mark’s death. We did not want more students to hear the news via Snapchat or overhear misinformation in a bathroom.
Before the announcement, teachers, the school nurse, school counselors and the social worker notified students who they knew would be most directly impacted. Teachers were then able to sit in classrooms and be attentive to students’ reactions while Butler read the statement. His voice was calm and comforting, and he compassionately listed ways in which students could find additional support throughout the day.
As Butler spoke, teachers were able to survey the room and see who was crying, able to note the students who put their heads down or who looked distressed. Many teachers were relieved to have the principal take the job of informing the school so that we could be present with our students. Our district followed up the announcement with three additional emails that week with resources for parents.
After Butler’s announcement and throughout the day, teachers checked on each other and sought out and hugged crying students. Educators and administrators moved around the building, checking in with and tracking down students. We handed out many tissues. We worried about how the news could affect vulnerable students with mental health struggles, so we made sure eyes were on them (or called home). Educators spent their breaks in the hallways, consoling students or walking them to find the support they needed.
Some teachers suspended their lessons for the day, based on the moods of their individual classes. Other teachers noted students’ desire to continue with regular, daily routines, but there was nothing about the day that was “business as usual” or “one size fits all,” as the article implied. None of these facts were mentioned in the article about how our school handled this tragedy.
Mental health awareness is a part of our training and curriculum, yes, but doing the best for all of our students is simply part of our core. Even on a regular school day, every decision made about how we interact with kids is deliberate and based on best practice.
Please remember that the death of a student rocks an entire school and community. It may seem clear to those at home how a school should deal with a tragedy, but we are the ones in the trenches. We’re not perfect, but the well-being of kids is always our first priority. It’s all too easy to point fingers and assign blame, when what our community needs in hard times is kindness and support, especially for Mark’s family and friends. Please trust that on the best days and on the worst days, your kids are always in good hands with us.
Emilie Throckmorton and Jane Venturelli teach English at Bangor High School.