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Picking up the pieces

Children die, press want a story and school is a target. By Hugh Dougherty.

There's a growing role that schools have been discharging over the last few years in front of television and press cameras. It's displaying private grief following the death, either within or outwith the school, of a pupil or pupils.

The recent tragic gas explosion in Larkhall, which wiped out a family of four, resulted in a press conference in the school, with the headteacher and other staff paying very public tribute to their deceased pupils, while grieving pupils were filmed and photographed in number, as they attended the funeral.

Over the years, I've dealt with the press side of pupil deaths and have always found them one of the most harrowing aspects of the press office role.

There is nothing more difficult to deal with than a child's death and it's worse within the school context, especially if the media spotlight is turned on, too. Staff are often traumatised and can be very affected in a personal sense by the sudden death of a pupil for whom they had respect and pastoral concern. But mixed emotions can come to the surface if the deceased was, in the full reality of life, a blasted nuisance, and the media is knocking at the door. Guilt and anxiety can be the result, and, coupled with the need to say something in difficult circumstances, can be stressful.

The very worst I've dealt with were a murder in a Glasgow secondary and a school bus crash at Biggar, which ignited a national debate about school bus seat belts and whose aftermath was a media feeding frenzy. In both cases there was a pressing need to work closely and effectively with police colleagues to ensure that anything said did not compromise scenes of crime and potential fatal acccident enquiries, but the first need was to work with the headteacher to be able to meet the press and say what was appropriate in the circumstances.

But something that we did discuss at length was the need for pupils to grieve, for giving them support, either from educational psychologists or from social work staff, but viewed firmly and very practically against the background of an appropriate level of grieving. And that's essential, for there is a growing tendency, seemingly media-induced, and almost certainlyfanned by television reports of much physical bonding and grief-sharing being indulged in and displayed by United States school pupils after tragedies such as shootings, for the whole thing to get out of hand and harm the calm and order that school management is trying to re-establish.

That has to be a priority, and, in any cases I've been involved in, headteachers have taken the sensible decision of saying that, as a mark of respect to the deceased, the school will carry on as normal for the remainder of the day, with counselling and support for anyone who wants it.

That's also a very positive message for someone like myself, as press officer, to give out to the waiting media, but you should never underestimate just how much the media wants to see that public display by pupils.

The result, if pupils are not organised - calling in the chaplain and calming the whole place down with a prayer is always a wise move - is that excessive grieving can spread through the school like wildfire, and, that, in its own right, can become as much the story as a lack of any show of emotion. The balance is very fine.

One of my worst memories is being out at a Drumchapel primary, the morning after several Brownies lost their lives when the top was sliced off their bus as it went under a bridge in Glasgow.

I manned the front door, we dropped the blinds and shut the curtains in the school to stop lens intrusion, and I talked a very distraught headteacher into agreeing, with my support, to meet the 30 press waiting outside. And then I had to go to visit the parents of the victims to gain their permission to issue the pictures of their children to the media to save them being door-stepped all day.

It was hard, and I cried that night at home. But there was also the lurking feeling that I had helped make it all a little less traumatic for the school and the parents and, despite all the difficulties, I had given the press what they needed.

That's the balance for schools: meeting the needs of the living first, with a measured outpouring of grief afterwards, but not so much that the school can't function and dies a little itself.

Hugh Dougherty is East Renfrewshire education department press officer and former Strathclyde press officer

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