Student suicide: The impact on schools and their leaders

Barbarann Tantillo, Fordham University


In recent years, adolescent suicide across the nation has escalated to epidemic proportions. Conceding to community pressures, school leaders are often bewildered as to their roles and responsibilities in suicide prevention. In response to public awareness and concern as well as media attention, school leaders have developed policies, procedures, and programs for suicide prevention and intervention. Whenever it occurs, student suicide has a devastating impact on schools. Often cautious, there is frequently a reexamination of policies, procedures, and programs. Legal ramifications surrounding adolescent suicide further complicate the issue with the threat of litigation, exacerbating an already complex situation. This qualitative study was conducted in a small, suburban school district outside of New York City where two students took their own lives within a 10-month period. Seven members of a crisis intervention team, who represent a range of roles and responsibilities, as related to student suicide policy, procedures, and programs were each interviewed twice over a 3-month period. In addition, a variety of documents such as the district's student suicide policy, inter-office correspondence, crisis team minutes, principal's letters to parents, PTA newsletters, and school newsletters were analyzed. Perhaps the most significant finding of this study was that school leaders utilized traditional decision-making strategies in response to student suicide. Evident were their attempts to manage, control, and fix the "problem." Although their initial responses to the students' deaths was one of frustration, anger, and disbelief, eventually school leaders rationalized the suicides. This appeared to be an attempt to distance and separate themselves from their emotions, in an effort to cope with their pain and anguish. Despite the best efforts of a well-intentioned and talented school leader, there is vulnerability and uncertainty related to student suicide. Administrators must be prepared to suspend all previously held assumptions of leadership and recognize the limitations of their organizations. They need to gain insight into their own fears and frustrations surrounding suicide. Most important, school leaders should devote their efforts to creating schools that are accepting communities filled with concern and hope for their students and their futures.

Subject Area

School administration|Academic guidance counseling

Recommended Citation

Tantillo, Barbarann, "Student suicide: The impact on schools and their leaders" (1995). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9530959.