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How to avoid one of the most common pitfalls when navigating the aftermath of student death

February 9, 2024

We recently wrote a report on how colleges and universities can navigate student deaths, highlighting the most common pitfalls that befall institutions. One of the most common pitfalls was the lack of a formal student death protocol or having a protocol that is overly focused on administrative tasks.

Having a formal written protocol helps institutions stabilize the campus community; mobilize well-being resources to impacted students, faculty, and staff; and mitigate risks in the aftermath of a student death. However, most institutions’ protocols are either outdated or overlook key components of the campus healing process.

Here are two steps leaders can take to proactively prepare to navigate the aftermath of a student death:

  1. Create a formal, campus-specific student death protocol
  2. Review and update your protocol annually

1. Create a formal, campus-specific student death protocol

“By having a specific procedure, we can keep ourselves on track and keep consistency in responding. You want to make sure you have a uniform and professional reaction.”  -President, private institution 

A best-practice student death protocol is one that is formally documented in writing and is stored centrally where key institutional leaders can easily access it.

In your protocol:

  • Codify the steps you will take to stabilize the community, handle administrative tasks, and facilitate the grieving and healing process on campus.
  • Outline key responsibilities by role or title and list tasks in a chronological, timebound, and/or prioritized order. To learn more about the president’s role in navigating student death, check out EAB’s research report.
  • Specify what tasks will be performed during the first 24 hours (e.g., personally notifying impacted students, faculty, and staff) versus what will happen during the first week (e.g., facilitating memorial activities).
  • Identify the key components that will apply to most incidents (e.g., how you will notify impacted groups of the death, the process for closing a student’s account).
  • Adjust your process for circumstances that may alter your typical approach (e.g., a death occurs off campus, during a long break, or abroad).

2. Review and update your student death protocol annually

“We learn something new every time we go through the protocol.”  -Director in student affairs, public institution

Regularly reviewing your protocol helps address gaps and align with evolving best practices. We recommend you:

  • Conduct an annual review of the student death protocol with your vice president for student affairs, provost, and dean of students to ensure the protocol reflects current practice. This allows the opportunity to make any necessary process improvements.
  • Solicit process improvement feedback from members of the student death response team two to four weeks after each response effort and during annual reviews.

How EAB’s research will help

Proactively planning how you will navigate the aftermath of a student’s death will help you avoid common pitfalls in institutional responses. Use EAB’s Preparing to Navigate Student Death resources to prepare your institution for student death so you can facilitate healing on campus, prioritize consistency and timeliness in your response, and mitigate risks to student, faculty, and staff well-being and safety.

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