The day my life changed - Fatal bike smash showed me death is part of school life

28th May 2010 at 01:00
Bereavement and grief must be followed by celebration of achievements

Damen Burrows was a very hands-on type of student. Design and technology was one of his best subjects and he was very able. He was a nice young man: pleasant and sociable, but on the quiet side. Not many pupils at that age have the opportunity to own a motorbike, but it was something that Damen was really interested in.

The accident happened in the summer of 2006, just weeks after he had finished Year 11. He was on his motorbike and a car pulled out without seeing him.

I remember his mum saying that she thought it was just a few cuts and bruises, but by the time she got to hospital he was in a critical condition and died soon after.

Although we are a large school with more than 1,000 pupils, St Helens is a small community and news spreads quickly. After incidents such as this, I always try to visit the pupil's family within 24 hours with flowers, if that is possible.

We also try to support the family through the funeral. At times, a reading has been done by a pupil or the choir has sung at the service. At other times we have lined the streets outside the church - whatever the family would like. But we would always have a group of pupils and staff attend.

I drove a minibus to Damen's funeral. We took a group of sixth-formers and the church was full. It was a very sombre occasion, and it was difficult for pupils who are not familiar with that scenario. But the funeral is very important. It is a way of celebrating the life of their friend and being able to share in that grief. It is also good for the family to see a variety of people there who are supporting them.

Normally we would do an assembly if a pupil died, but because Damen had left school, we didn't on this occasion. But he had a younger brother and sister at school at the time, and we had to think about them and how they dealt with going back to school. Each year group has a co-ordinator to support them in terms of counselling.

Staff are told about which pupils are going through a hard time, and everyone will keep an eye on them around the school and in lessons. We also help to co-ordinate bereavement counselling outside school.

In the past six years, eight pupils have died for a variety of reasons. You have to judge the situation, but you always celebrate that pupil's life in some way. In some year groups, there are 250 pupils and while some children will be friends with that pupil, others might not have known them at all. But I have never come across a situation where other pupils are not sympathetic.

We are in the process of making a lasting memorial at our new school building, for pupils at our school who have died. We are trying to make a significant statement of our bereavement, something more permanent than planting a tree so that Damen's mum, Paula, and other families, can come along and remember their children as part of the school community.

For me, in this situation, I have a huge amount of admiration for Paula, who out of this tragedy, created a No Excuses DVD about road safety. I don't know if I could do that - to relive the tragedy in such a public way. It is very positive and brave.

Cameron Sheeran, head of Cowley Language College in St Helens, Merseyside, was talking to Meabh Ritchie. For details on the 'No Excuses' DVD, visit www.no-excuses.org.uk.

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