ALL SCHOOLS in Wales should have a bereavement policy to deal with an increase in pupil suicides and tragic deaths, teacher delegates at a conference were told.
Good practice in dealing with young loss of life, particularly through suicide, was passed on to school representatives by leading counsellors at the event, held by the charity Children in Wales, in Cardiff's University Hall conference centre this week.
Alison Thomas, children's services officer with bereavement charity Cruse Cymru, told delegates that 20,000 children are bereaved every year in the UK.
However, the conference also heard how many professionals dealing with children did not know how to broach death with young people, often giving the wrong advice and impeding the natural grieving process that can sometimes take years to get over.
Ann Atkin, a local authority bereavement support worker in Denbighshire, said she counselled hundreds of traumatised children after a road accident claimed the lives of a 15-year-old pupil alongside seven other people in North Wales last year.
Thomas Harland was killed after a car skidded on ice, ploughing into him as he rode his bike with a group of cyclists.
Mrs Atkin had helped the school draw up a good whole-school strategy to deal with bereavement just weeks before the tragedy. She believes it proved vital in helping pupils who were severely traumatised after the event - especially some of Thomas's friends who had witnessed his death.
"By 8.30am on the day after the accident, everything was in place at the school to deal with the hundreds of traumatised children who came in that day," she said.
"We spent days just sitting in rooms talking to these young people and allowing them to express their feelings."
Mrs Atkin said that almost 15 months later she is still taking some of the pupils through the bereavement programme to help them cope.
"The grief is still raw," she said. "I take a group of 15 and 16-year-old boys who do not talk about their feelings readily. Some are still struggling to come to terms with their loss.
"The boys who saw him being killed are riddled with guilt. Life changed for everybody the day Tom died."
Pupil suicide was also raised at the conference. Emma Dalgleish, counselling manager with Bridgend County Borough Council, said a spate of suicides in the county led the authority to draw up a policy to help schools deal better with the tragedies.
"We had one pupil who lay down in front of a train and the following day 50 pupils requested to see a counsellor," she said. "A year later, some are still having problems."
She said that five years ago three pupils at Porthcawl comprehensive school, near Bridgend, died within three weeks. One had committed suicide, one was killed in a car crash and the third died through drugs and alcohol.
"Two-thirds of the pupils in that school were affected," she said.
"Only a few months ago, we had two young people hang themselves. This issue is getting bigger and our pupils need good support and counselling."
Leader, page 24