HOUSEWIFE PANG LAW Yuen-yee was watching television one Saturday last month as news broke that a mother and her two daughters had been chopped to death in their home in Wong Tai Sin. It was only when Pang saw a deputy headmaster being interviewed that she realised that one of the victims, nine-year-old Lau Cha-yin, was a student at her daughter's school. Disturbed as she was by the family tragedy, Pang's immediate thoughts were of her child, a Primary Five pupil at St Patrick's School in Lok Fu. 'The first thing I was concerned about was whether my daughter had heard the news and how she felt,' she says. That afternoon, Pang received a call from the school authorities. 'They told me what arrangements would be in place when school reopened and asked me to monitor my daughter's emotions,' she recalls. Pang, who heads the Parent Teacher Association at St Patrick's, says some classmates were distressed, but her daughter was less affected as she didn't know Cha-yin. The call is part of a system used by schools to deal with crises such as suicide by a student or staff member, and violent or sudden death in catastrophes such as 2004's tsunami. Proposals on handling such tragedies have emerged over the past decade, but it was only last year that they coalesced into an electronic handbook for schools with guidelines which, among others, call for the setting up of a crisis management team. The team at St Patrick's comprised headmaster Ko Ming, student guidance teachers and school-based psychologists, as well as those from the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB). To identify youngsters in distress, they asked the parents of children who shared classes or activities with Cha-yin to keep a close eye on any mood swings, while teachers were briefed on how to conduct exercises to help pupils express their feelings. A key channel were the special sessions in which the pupils were encouraged to make memorial cards for Cha-yin. The children were also invited to write down responses to questions about how they learned and felt about the incident. 'Some children told us they lost their appetite after watching the news,' says Alice Yan Hau-sim, an educational psychologist who serves St Patrick's along with seven schools under an outsourcing scheme with the Catholic diocese. 'Others had nightmares, suffered insomnia and shivered all night.' It's therapeutic for children to verbalise their feelings and thoughts about the incident and the departed, says EMB psychologist Sally Leung Wing-wah. 'It's more worrying if they don't talk about it at all or exhibit unusual behaviour, making inappropriate remarks such as, 'she deserves that',' she says. 'It's not that the child is naughty or heartless. It may be because the incident is too sudden and the child has never experienced such a big impact before. Or maybe the problem also exists in his or her family and the child is also scared and doesn't know how to say it out loud.' The benefit of such exercises is perhaps best illustrated by what happens when they aren't conducted, Leung says. Take the case of Munsang College in Kowloon City in 2002, when a student slipped and fell to his death at home. However, some press reports alleged that the youngster had jumped out of the window while high on drugs. And because the school failed to take action to counsel students, rumours spread and students were upset. 'Some cried in class and couldn't focus on their lessons,' Leung says. St Patrick's also held a memorial ceremony and set up a corner where pupils could pay respects to Cha-yin. Her classmates were also allowed to discuss how to handle their friend's belongings. Such actions help pupils accept the tragedy and face it positively, Yan says. 'If they brood about the problem alone, they may go to extremes. If the children face it together, it's a beneficial relief,' she says. But adults need help too. Cha-yin's class teacher had to be excused from work in the aftermath, says Yan, who found him red-eyed and silent following the news. 'He cares about his students very much, and to him, it was really painful and traumatic,' she says. 'It was hard for him to accept the reality, but he didn't want to upset the children and chose not to host the special session.' The class teacher still isn't ready to talk about his feelings, Yan says. 'We encourage teachers to show more concern for their colleagues and to be each other's back-up,' she says. 'Sometimes it's hard for men to share their feelings and peer support is important and effective.' St Patrick's staff later also held a debriefing session, giving teachers an opportunity to vent any emotions that may have been suppressed for the day. Ma Tau Chung Government Primary in Hunghom Bay also found such crisis management useful when one of its pupils, 11-year-old Chan Cheuk-hei, and her parents were killed in the Lunar New Year bus crash in Egypt, in which 14 Hong Kong tourists died. The debriefing for teachers at the end of the school day was effective for releasing grief and stress, says teacher Cheung Sau-wai. Her colleague Wong Man-siu found it harder to cope. 'I was really upset,' she says. '[Cheuk-hei] was a member of the marching band and her sister was a former pupil. I knew both quite well. 'I couldn't hold my tears in the special session, so I left the classroom to calm myself and let the educational psychologists host the session,' Wong says. Even though the EMB's 27 educational psychologists must each serve 30 or more schools, Eugenie Leung, vice-president of the Asian Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, rates the schools' crisis management system as an efficient response. 'Everyone can provide basic emotional support just by saying what's in their hearts,' she says. 'Saying something to comfort each other is just common sense, and you don't need professional training to do that. Teachers are fully competent to [help students].' But the teachers should realise that they, too, are vulnerable and should seek follow-up counselling after the debriefing, she says. Meanwhile, life has returned to normal at St Patrick's. While teachers and friends still grieve for Cha-yin, the school's handling of the trauma has also had a positive impact. Students are now more aware of the need to seek help with family problems, says student guidance teacher Kwok Wai-po. 'Previously, many students held back because of the traditional Chinese thinking that it's shameful to tell outsiders,' she says. 'In the aftermath, several students approached us to talk to us about their family difficulties.'