When a Student Dies

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How does a school community deal with the violent loss of a student? Unfortunately, this is a question my school has had to answer too often. Still, no matter how many times I’ve been through it, trying to understand my own pain while holding space for my students to feel theirs is something that pushes me beyond my capacity as a teacher. 

When we lost 16-year-old Nancy Nguyen, who had tried to break up with her boyfriend and was shot by him, students dedicated a mural on campus and planted a tree in her honor.

Last year, we lost Raymen Justice, who had attended our school for a month before he was slain. The students who knew him immediately built an altar for him in the hallway. The usual grief counselors were on hand to meet with students and faculty who needed to talk. The advisory class that Justice belonged to hosted an entire afternoon devoted to him called Justice Day, during which the rest of the student body could buy food and participate in activities. The money raised was given to the Justice family, who then dedicated a scholarship fund in his name.

Student-initiated memorials were created for both Marco Casillas and Jose Rocha, who were shot and killed years after their time at our school.

But several weeks ago, we lost another student to gun violence—the third in just a little over a year. Former student Luis Garibay’s November death prompted us, as a community, to think about what more we could do beyond the hallway altar and the funeral fundraisers.

My colleague Julio Magaña urged us to hold a town hall during the school day in hopes of combating “the glorification of this violence and sanctification of these former Life students by our current students,” he said. “As hard as it is, we cannot sweep teen murder under the rug and simply move on. It sends the wrong message to our students and their families.” He noted Garibay had been ignored by the media, with no mention of his death anywhere in the news. 

That meeting was the most powerful memorial we’ve had yet. It was a truly meaningful denunciation of violence and appreciation of young life. We’d planned for a 45-minute assembly at the end of the day, but it ran nearly an hour past the close of school. Only a few students left before its conclusion. Student representatives from each advisory class presented their brainstorms of the root causes of violence. Community organizers, school board members and a representative from the Department of Public Safety for the city of Oakland all addressed the student body’s loss and courage for standing up to violence. A Native American prayer was sung. Students were invited to speak about the memories of the five students we have lost and to light candles on the stage. And as a finale, Daniel “Big Dan” Mora of the Oakland hip-hop group BRWN BFLO performed a message of nonviolence.

It took us more than a week to plan this event. I wish we’d managed to do it sooner. But what matters most is that it happened. Although I had responded to news of Garibay’s death with numbness and a desire to keep my lesson plans moving forward, when forced to acknowledge the suffering and loss I felt personally and in the community, I could finally cry. I at last felt like there was a space for me, an adult guardian of our school community and culture, to be human. By being a full human being, I am better positioned to teach and to allow the full humanity of my students into the classroom.

What has your school done to honor a student who has died? Do you have any strategies for personally incorporating into your being the experience of losing a student and still remaining hopeful for the students in your classroom?

Thomas is an English teacher in California.