NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – The Thursday, May 7 telephonic Board of Education (BOE) meeting began with a somber note and a moment of silence due to the passing of a New Providence High School student.
On April 30, 2020, Principal Lauren Zirpoli notified New Providence High School families of the passing of Nico Stepney, a senior at the school. "As always, please know that we are with you during this difficult time. My thoughts and prayers are with Nico, his family and our entire school community," she said.
Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Scott Hough, Director of Special Services Joseph Harvey and Director of School Counseling Services Jillian Shadis explained how the district responded to this tragic event.
Superintendent David Miceli explained that the district has had a designated committee to work and prepare its dramatic loss plan over the past few years. “We have been very fortunate to have a tremendous group of mental health professionals in the district” on that committee, he said.
As a district we have had a dramatic loss plan for many years. The purpose of the plan is to provide support to the school community in the event of a dramatic loss of a student or a staff member. Having a thoughtful plan in place in advance allows our response team to rely on training rather than try to plan a response during a stressful situation. We review all our emergency plans every year and this past fall we revised the plan in order to be current with best practices as well as to include new staff members in the response procedures. The new plan has been in effect since December 2019. However, the ongoing pandemic forced the district to revise the plan to accommodate the social distancing requirements, Hough explained.
The plan is to both gather and distribute information to the school community and the community at large to enact procedures to help students and staff to deal with a dramatic loss. The plan is divided into four phases: notification, mobilization, implementation, and debriefing with a specific set of guidelines for each phase, Harvey explained. The notification phase starts with the superintendent verifying the situation. He then begins the notifications process starting with principals and the Chief of Police. We gathered the whole team remotely, in excess of 20 individuals, within the first few hours of the tragedy, he said. The team made sure that all technologies needed for remote sessions were up and running to facilitate the plans, which included emergency meetings and checking in on siblings and family members of the passed away student. The team then started notifying students and offering them access to resources in order to help them deal with the loss.
We set up a voice line that students were able to contact through Google Voice. We started the phone line at 4 pm on Thursday, continued it for 12 hours on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We also worked out a schedule for Zoom appointments for individual counseling, and we set up a group counseling session through Zoom, as well. Individual sessions for mental health professionals were also made available for staff members. The response team was also reaching out to family members and close friends of the deceased student. The goal was to have the support lines up and running within two hours of the notification, Harvey explained.
Shadis provided an overview of the implementation phase. Within 24 hours of the notification the superintendent and high school principal had informed the community of the loss taking into account the wishes of the student’s family. The director of school counseling and director of special services provided the superintendent with the specific counseling schedule as well as any relevant outside resource. The dramatic loss response team members implemented the plan in accordance with their assigned role. The drop-in Zoom call was made available to students immediately. Additionally, the team provided national hotline resources for the community. The hotline was set up for any student who wished to talk from 8 am to 8 pm Sat-Mon. The school psychologist, crisis counselor as well as Dr. Harvey and Shadis herself took shifts to receive those calls.
Students were encouraged to reach out to any faculty member, who then was able to make referrals to the mental health staff members. The teachers also shared their concerns about some students who might need additional guidance during this time, Shadis said. Furthermore, the teachers were also provided general guidelines to deal with a loss in a classroom setting. After the scheduled faculty meeting the staff members were able to further discuss the situation with the mental health team, she added.
The debriefing phase includes staff meetings and a follow-up letter to parents stating which services will be available for students going forward. The district will also continue to identify students who may need additional help. The review process of the dramatic loss response will also take place and the plan will be modified if needed, Shadis said.