Students and staff grapple with grief at Hamilton high school after fatal stabbing

Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School has brought in resources to help support their students and staff as they grieve after a 14-year-old boy was killed outside the school.

'We believe that the safest place for a kid to be right now...is in the school,' says HWDSB director

Students, families and staff members are accessing resources at Sir Winston Churchill to process their grief after Devan Selvey was fatally stabbed behind the school. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

While murder suspects appeared in court on Tuesday and police continued searching school grounds for a weapon, the focus inside the walls of Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School was to ensure students and parents felt safe and supported. 

Director of education with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, Manny Figueiredo said that students have been experiencing a range of emotions as they returned to class the day after a classmate, Devan Bracci-Selvey, was killed outside the school.

"It's surreal for me to see a neighbourhood with the yellow tape with half the school sort of blocked off," he said. "There's people in tears, there are students...who want this to be a normal day." 

The board brought in resources this week to help students, including a crisis response intervention team, additional social workers, and employee wellness staff. 

And for a lot of the students, Figueiredo added, coming to the school to grieve is in some small way helping matters. 

"We believe that the safest place for a kid to be right now, in the community, is to be in the school," said Figueiredo. 

"A large percentage of our kids came to school because that's where they want to be...A lot of them want to be together, they want to be with their friends and talk and make sense and deal with their grief." 

Police liaison officers are also walking the halls and talking to kids, and will be doing so for a few more days. An outside agency will brought in later this week to assist the social workers. 

'Bulldog family' is in mourning

The teachers, who are putting on brave faces for their students all the while grieving themselves, are also receiving support. Occasional teachers and external principals and vice-principals were brought in to relieve staff if they needed a break throughout the day. 

Figueiredo said that the school calls itself a "Bulldog family" a reference to the school's mascot and sports team name, and that their community is feeling "demoralized that they have lost one of their family members."

He stressed the importance of students feeling comfortable to embrace their emotions, both those who knew Devan and those shocked at having a tragedy occur on school grounds. 

"We want to provide a place where [kids] know there will be adults that will listen," he said. "It's okay to speak about your feelings." 

Two males, ages 18 and 14, have been charged in connection with Hamilton's ninth homicide, where a 14-year-old boy was stabbed to death outside Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School. (Christine Rankin/CBC)

The board is mindful that families at home will want to take the best steps to help their kids process the tragedy. In a HWDSB document on distressing events, the board gives several tips for adults on supporting children and youth after distressing events. They include: 

  • Taking care of your own feelings and needs.
  • Helping children and youth feel safe.
  • Acknowledging and normalizing feelings.
  • Being a good listener and observer. 
  • Responding to changes in behaviour.
  • Identifying children and youth who may be at risk. 
  • Keeping communication open between home and school.

Figueiredo confirmed that parents have visited the school to access the resources for support. He stressed that guardians and staff should remember to take care of themselves, talk to someone and get some sleep to best allow them to stay calm and reassure youth during this difficult time. 

Staff will be monitoring students beyond these first few days to ensure they have support in the coming weeks. 

Police have not confirmed a direct link between bullying and Devan's death, but the topic has been raised among concerned community members. Asked about that, Figueiredo said he did not know what led up to the violence, but speaking generally,  said that in cases of bullying there needs to be a community response. 

"The schools don't live in isolation of the community," he said. "Schools need to take a leadership role [when it comes to bullying] because we have these students for five hours a day.

"We have to continue to engage our kids...If a kid turns to us, how are we responding so they see that it's safe to respond?"

Figueiredo encouraged students who do not feel safe, or have not felt safe in the past, to raise their concerns with adults. 

Kids Help Phone has spoken out about the death and is reminding kids that they can always reach out for help at their helpline, 1-800-668-6868. 

An 18-year-old and 14-year-old have been charged with first-degree murder of Bracci-Selvey, who was stabbed mid-day Monday while he was with his mother behind the school. Police also arrested two 16-year-olds who, on Wednesday, were released unconditionally.