The Conversation: Coping With Tragedy in a School Community

Fall 2023

This article appeared as "Doing Hard Things" in the Fall 2023 issue of Independent School.

Over the past two years, St. Mary’s Episcopal School (TN) has experienced more than its fair share of tragedy. In the 2021–2022 school year, two students died, one by suicide. The following school year, two teachers passed away, one of whom was Liza Fletcher, whose abduction and murder over Labor Day weekend became national news. Head of School Albert Throckmorton and Director of Communications Jennifer Parris have had many difficult conversations over the course of that time, and in this edited exchange, they talk about what they’ve learned about community and a school’s purpose following a tragedy.

Albert Throckmorton: I’ve been in independent schools for 42 years, and I have never experienced a series of crises and the trauma that goes with it that St. Mary’s has in the past two years. We’re still standing, and I believe we’re stronger for it. 

Jennifer Parris: I started my career at a children’s hospital in media relations, and it was very much like that, one thing after another. I didn’t think that would be the same case at a school. In these tragedies, we’ve tried to honor the families’ wishes while guiding our community through them. We’re very fortunate to have a strong counseling program here. I think that helped us shepherd families through these tragedies. 

Throckmorton: Being an Episcopal school, we have chaplains on top of that. And the messages we got from other schools that have dealt with suicide, that have had a teacher death, were helpful. We now have not just sympathy but empathy for other schools going through tragedies.

Parris: We also have a high level of trust with our administrative team now because we have done these hard things together. I would never wish that on anyone, but I think it has strengthened us and probably prepared us for when Liza was reported missing. 

Throckmorton: There was a police incident that happened at our street intersection about 10 years ago, and that’s when I learned that adults aren’t going to handle things the same way. There are some adults where you have to say, “You need to go home.” Sometimes it has to do with how close they were to the situation. But also, people have different thresholds for how they deal with bad news. So that’s part of the team dynamic. Sometimes you must look at someone at the table and say, “You need to go take care of yourself.”

Parris: I remember at some point during that weekend when Liza was missing, I was just weary of writing. Our middle school head was sitting next to me, and she took the laptop and took over. You get so weary in these long situations, and you need to have some depth on your team. We all had to shift into roles that we were not used to.

Throckmorton: With Liza, it was an abduction, then a suspected murder, and then a murder. There were lots of rumors flying, and it became national news almost immediately. This was going beyond what we knew. I was in the airport in Chicago, waiting to come back on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, when NAIS called and offered several things and prepared us for what to expect in the media.

Parris: Myra McGovern at NAIS told me that we need to communicate more frequently than our instincts thought was necessary. I think it’s brilliant advice. She said when you communicate your value and purpose, you give people something to hold onto. St. Mary’s has four academic divisions, and how you tell a student in junior kindergarten that her teacher was murdered is very different than how you talk to a high school student who is now afraid to leave the house. We worked with our counselors so we could give each age group appropriate information. 

Myra also talked about holding on to those cultures and values, and we did it in so many ways, not just in written communication. We did it through chapel talks and social media posts and parent meetings. We were able to live out our mission and show that we know our students and we’re in this together. I think that really helped us come out stronger. 

But I think a little gift was the all-school read last year. It was the first time the school had done this. We read The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, and that book gave us words many times when we didn’t have words. We had a chapel service just for our faculty and staff as we came back after Liza’s death, and you read some of the quotes from that book. We put one on a social media post about Liza that said, “We don’t know about tomorrow,” said the Horse. “All we need to know is that we love each other.” I think our community felt so connected to each other, and that book helped us verbalize the grief, loss, and confusion that we were feeling.

Throckmorton: Traditionally, that week was supposed to end with a eucharist chapel where, ironically, we celebrate the Martyrs of Memphis, who took St. Mary’s and Memphis through the tragedy of the yellow fever epidemic. As lovely as that chapel was, I had to step in and say we’re not ready to gather inside doing another sad thing. 

Instead, we said we need to be in community, and we need to be outside. A school introduced us to therapy dogs, and some of them had just come back from Uvalde. We had sidewalk chalk. We had popsicles. It wasn’t a celebration, but it was like play therapy. Everybody got to be outside and choose how they wanted to spend their time. 

Parris: I think it was a good day for our faculty and staff, too. I think they could breathe, be together, and see children laugh and play. We haven’t talked a whole lot about caring for the caretakers. I know that that was a concern for you because with Liza’s death, there were four days of not knowing and watching the news. No one slept well that week. I remember the previous year, the week that the sixth grader died, you asked me to come to your office to help our middle school head with the situation. I told the two of you that I needed to leave in 10 minutes for an appointment with my counselor. You two rushed me out the door so I wasn’t late. It signaled how important it was to take care of ourselves in those days. These two years have been emotionally, mentally, physically draining, and I appreciate the way you have given us flexibility to care for ourselves. 

Throckmorton: Well, thank you. It was your commitment to therapy that convinced me to go. That was a really good decision. 

Parris: This spring when one of our parents who was a board member had passed away, we worked on a message to our community. And you said something like, “Well, we’ve gotten sadly efficient at this.”

Throckmorton: Someone from a school called me a few months ago. He had just found out that their teacher had died and he said, “What do you do?” We were able to give him some advice right away. 

Parris: The things we’ve talked about—gather your team, ask for help, overcommunicate, and reinforce your values—help. Every single time, I will look to those four things as we develop our communications plan.

DO YOU HAVE A CONVERSATION TO SHARE? Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of—a great student-teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to [email protected], and we’ll follow up.