The Montclair Board of Education has approved grief education training for school staff and caregivers, a response to students and parents who’d told the board the district lacked grief support.

A contract with Imagine, a Center for Coping with Loss, approved by the board at its Jan. 23 meeting, outlines two-hour grief education sessions for administrators and staff, a 60- to 90-minute virtual session for parents and caregivers, and a three-day training session for the district mental health team.

The total cost for services is $11,500; the training is to run through June. 

Speaking at a Nov. 14 board meeting, high school senior Diana Creaser said she received no support from the school when her mother, Mary Curtin Creaser, died in May 2022 of colon cancer.

“I left school for two weeks to care for my Mom in her last week of life and to grieve her death,” Creaser said. “As I prepared for my return to MHS, I was an extremely different person, as are so many students when they return to school after a traumatizing experience. But when I walked through the doors of MHS, I've never felt more alone.”

No teacher or counselor reached out to her upon her return to meet and talk with her, she said. Montclair High School has nine school counselors, four student assistance counselors and one restorative justice teacher on special assignment.

Creaser, her father, Thomas, and Montserrat Kim, a parent whose husband, George, died of colon cancer in 2019, asked at the Nov. 14 meeting that the district work with Imagine.

The grief support center for children and young adults, based in Mountainside, offers training for districts and schools to become “grief-informed,” with curriculums for students, school staff and parents focused on recognizing loss, understanding coping skills and learning how to support students through their grief. 

At the Jan. 23 meeting, the board also approved a $7,500 contract with Quantum Psychotherapy Group for professional development around mental health. 

According to the Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model, 1 in 13 children in the United States will experience the death of a parent or a sibling by the age of 18. The model was developed by two bereavement groups, the New York Life Foundation and Judi’s House/JAG Institute. 

Studies have found that the death of a loved one can have a profoundly negative impact on academic performance, lowering a student’s ability to concentrate and learn, and student mental health, leading to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

“It's extremely worthwhile for the district to invest in an initiative that trains teachers on how to more effectively interact and empathize with students grieving due to traumatic experiences in their lives,” Thomas Creaser said at the Nov. 14 meeting. 

“Had such a program been established in the past, Diana would have had much better support during an extremely difficult time in her life.” 

Diana Creaser said she thought the contract with Imagine was a great start to providing grief training in the district and supporting students. 

“I look forward to the district having a dialogue with Imagine to plan out as comprehensive an approach as possible and making grief education part of the district's long-term culture for the benefit of present and future students,” she said. 

Kim and her daughters are happy they shared their story and that district administrators and the board “listened and responded,” she said. 

“To know that our experience will help others is healing,” she said. 

While she is unsure if the contracted sessions will be sufficient for the district’s needs, Kim said she is confident Imagine and Quantum would not agree to their contracts “if they didn’t feel like it was the right amount to be effective.”

“I am very hopeful that this will be impactful professional training that our administration, teachers and staff will find hugely beneficial to their careers and lives, and through that our students and families will benefit,” she said.