By David Schonfeld, MD, FAAP & Mary Cortes-Benjamin, MS, MS Ed | March 24, 2016
National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement & Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS)
Across the United States, some 800,000-900,000 sworn law enforcement personnel are on active duty. Over 100 die each year in line-of-duty deaths. Each one of those deaths affects family, friends, community and colleagues. In fact, when a police officer is killed, this death touches not just the immediate family, but potentially every family of every police officer throughout that community. The children in these families are students in virtually all of our K-12 schools.
We have written previously about the surprisingly common experience of grief in children’s lives. Over the course of their years in school, 9 in 10 children will experience the death of a family member or close friend. One in 20 will lose a parent.
Children who have lost a family member through a line-of-duty death face some unique challenges. Two organizations, the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), recently embarked on a partnership to explore ways to adapt and extend the general guidance about children and grief (described here, at the website for the Coalition to Support Grieving Students). We wanted to build on that foundation to speak to the unique processes and issues for child survivors of police officers killed in the line of duty.
We have developed a set of additional guidelines that we believe are relevant for educators everywhere. While these specifically address line-of-duty deaths among law enforcement personnel, they can also be useful, with adaptation, when working with survivors of line-of-duty deaths among military, fire fighters and other first responders.
Every death is different, and each child’s experience is distinct. It is important to recognize, however, that most grief experiences are actually fairly similar (see box). Educators familiar with the general guidelines for supporting grieving students do not need to learn “specialty” skills for every possible situation. Instead, they can find ways to adapt the general guidance for each unique situation. These guidelines on supporting children after a line-of-duty death are a good example of how to go about this.
Law enforcement officers and their families are part of a unique culture. There is no other profession in our society that serves quite the same role, or faces quite the same risks as a matter of course in their everyday work life.
Honor is important. Family and community are important. There is belief in the value of police work and its power to make a positive difference in the world. There is a sense that responsibility and risk often go hand in hand.
Children (as well as other family members) live every day with the knowledge their loved one will be in dangerous situations. They often cope using some form of healthy denial (“My dad/mom is smart enough to stay safe”). When a death occurs, these children’s sense of safety in the world can be profoundly challenged.
Some common reactions include:
Line-of-duty deaths are characterized by several features that are less common in other types of death. They are frequently sudden and violent. Children must cope with the fact that their loved one was intentionally killed by another person. Information about the death is highly public.
A line-of-duty death may not feel “heroic” or purposeful to a family. If an officer is killed in a car crash on the way to a crime scene, or shot by a suspect who then escapes, families may feel the death was not honorable, or was a waste.
Family members often learn of the death through news announcements or social media postings. These can include graphic images or videos of the scene. This is especially challenging in school settings, where children of a fallen officer may hear news of the death during a break or while checking social media in class.
“I see new families arrive at National Police Week, anxious, fearful, guarded, angry. As they settle into the program and allow themselves to be in this community of care, they completely turn around. Every year, surviving parents and grandparents tell us that after our program, it is the first time a child has smiled or truly been happy since the death. The power of connecting with others who have mutual experience, understanding, and a safe place to ‘feel’ their loss is a powerful thing.”
Mary Cortes-Benjamin, Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS Kids/Teens)
Rituals around grief are also different for children of police officers. Immediately after a death, many people are likely to come by the officer’s home—not just friends and fellow officers, but public officials, politicians, community celebrities and the press. There is little privacy. There often is considerable expectation that the family will be “strong” and handle the situation with dignity.
Funerals are also highly public, large, ritualized and often planned by others. Typically, hundreds of law enforcement personnel from all around the nation and the world attend. Children’s own needs and wishes may not be taken into account in the planning.
Over time, family members face constant reminders of this death—every time another officer is killed, every time a news report looks back at the death (usually with photos, video and explicit reports of the circumstances), every time a TV show or movie shows the death of a police officer. Legal proceedings can go on for years. If a perpetrator is convicted, families typically monitor parole hearings. Sometimes children will continue to testify at these sessions well into their adult years.
School peers can offer important support, especially if they have had some background education about death, grief and helpful ways to talk to a grieving peer (all topics covered at the Coalition website). However, peers also sometimes tease and harass a grieving classmate, ridiculing the student’s expressions of grief or tossing out taunts about the deceased.
Over the past couple of years, news reports and social media have frequently focused on officer-involved shootings, generally with a highly critical eye. Sadly, peers may turn this information against a classmate who has lost a family member in a line-of-duty death. They may even question if the officer deserved to die or was corrupt. Whether peers are supportive or critical can make an immense difference in grieving students’ well-being and ability to cope successfully over time.
Education professionals can make a difference. These steps can offer meaningful support to students coping with a family member’s line-of-duty death.
In 2013, COPS surveyed some of the children and teens attending the Kids/Teens program of National Police Week. They asked specifically about school experiences at the time of their family member’s death. Here are some of the students’ comments. We feel these are evidence enough of the importance of informed support from education professionals.
Did anything happen at school that was not helpful or caused you problems?
What would you recommend schools do to help?
David J. Schonfeld, MD, FAAP, is Professor of the Practice in the School of Social Work and Pediatrics at the University of Southern California and Children's Hospital Los Angeles and Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Cortes-Benjamin, MS, MEd, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She works with Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS Kids/Teens) and is a school social worker in Illinois.