Case study: death in a school

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Three years ago, Natalie, a Year 10 student at our college, reported to a member of staff that she was feeling unwell. She went to our first aid officer who sent her home and advised her to contact her GP. He diagnosed her symptoms as flu. Her situation deteriorated rapidly and by 10pm she had died of meningococcal septicaemia.

The next morning her father telephoned her year head, who relayed the news to senior staff by 8.30am. As staff we were all struggling to control our own emotions, while planning how best to manage the situation in school. My own feelings are still very clear. No one has prepared me for this; I don't know how to handle today. Meningitis is a word which induces fear, particularly in parents. It was very reassuring, therefore, to have the support of the Leicestershire health authority. The presence in school of their medical officer was crucial. It was important to learn the facts about meningitis quickly so that we could convey accurate information. The letters from the authority formed the basis of our communication with staff, students, parents and the community.

In the next few weeks our attendance figures declined massively and we had serious problems with behaviour. The office staff needed to be kept fully briefed so they could cope with a flood of calls. I had to handle the press. Above all, we needed to manage the students with sensitivity but in a way which reflected the fact that we are a school of 800 students, most of whom were studying for crucial exams and many of whom did not know the victim and were therefore relatively unaffected by her death. Dealing with emotional adolescents is one of the most challenging tasks anyone can face, and the emotions were high.

Ten days after Natalie's death, when we were just beginning to feel were were returning to some kind of normality, a second student, this time in Year 11, contracted the disease. Thankfully, although he remained seriously ill for many weeks and did not recover sufficiently to return to school, Mark survived. The impact of this second case, however, was as devastating as Natalie's death. The fear factor returned: bus drivers started complaining about carrying students to the college, the creche had to close because numbers dropped sharply, employers refused to have our students on work experience. Eventually it was decided that the whole school, with other local schools, should be vaccinated against the disease.

Another challenge for us was to organise the logistics of a mass immunisation programme, all filmed by local TV.

What we learned from the tragedy:

* That the role of the first aid officer is vital. Ours sent Natalie home to be seen by her doctor, whereas I suspect that I, as an untrained person, may not have considered her symptoms to be serious. We must be aware that flu-like symptoms can be an indication of something more serious. Schools have a responsibility to make sure that everyone knows these symptoms.

* You need to plan for an emergency of this kind. Although we had a plan, I'd never sat down and imagined how I'd handle the situation I've described. I was simply not prepared, either emotionally or in practical terms. Decide who the key people are and how your systems will respond to them being out of action in the school. Good organisation skills are important here, but those staff with highly developed "people skills", who are sensitive and supportive in their dealings with others, are equally crucial.

* A student's death inevitably creates an unreal and abnormal atmosphere.

Again, think through in advance how you would handle the situation. What support would be available to grieving and distressed young people? How far would the school be involved in providing that support directly? Which staff have the knowledge and skills to help young people? Who would speak to the press and what would they say? Who on your staff would have the skills to deal with grieving parents regarding funeral arrangements?

Caroline Wilkins is principal of Groby community college, Leicestershire



* Both the major meningitis charities offer similar support. They have informative websites, helplines, and a range of factsheets, posters and leaflets suitable for schools and available free of charge. They also offer personal support to schools affected by meningitis and counselling for families. They both help fund research into treatments and vaccines.

* The Meningitis Research Foundation (www.meningitis. org).

Twenty-four-hour telephone helpline: 080 8800 3344. Other information: 01454 281811; Scotland: 0131 228 3322; Northern Ireland: 028 9032 1283; email:

* The Meningitis Trust ( Fern House, Bath Road, Stroud, GL5 3TJ. 24-hour helpline: 0845 6000 800. Other information: 01453 768000; Scotland: 0845 1204885; Wales and Northern Ireland: 0845 1204886; email: The trust also has a new website (www. targeting schools, which carries case studies, and printable worksheets, as well as hints on tackling meningitis within the curriculum.


* Carrying the Elephant: a memoir of love and loss, by Michael Rosen (Penguin, pound;7.99). This slim volume of poems arches from Rosen's left-wing Jewish upbringing by two teacher parents to a world where "daisy cutter" bombs are being launched at Afghanistan. But it is really a collection about one subject - the out-of-the-blue death of his 18-year-old son Eddy from meningitis. ("Book of the week", Friday magazine, November 1, 2002).

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