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Helping students cope with tragedy

When two teens died in the gulf last week, the school district's counselors were ready to respond.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

BROOKSVILLE -- The call went out early last Sunday afternoon.

Two popular Hernando High School juniors had died overnight after being stranded on a personal watercraft in the Gulf of Mexico, and the fallout at school the next day was sure to be devastating. The time had come for the school district's Care Team to jump into action.

The team of guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists quickly mobilized, meeting Sunday to prepare for Monday's crying jags and feelings of loss. When school opened, they were ready to help.

"It's hard when you lose someone," said team member Melody Whitaker, a Hernando High guidance counselor. "It's especially hard in a school. We're a little community."

The school district created this team because campus leaders often are not prepared to cope with emotionally devastating events.

"We need to have a Care Team, because we found in the past if you don't have a plan, you have chaos," team leader and school social worker Barbara Smith explained. "So you plan and train so when an emergency happens, you're prepared. It's a credit to the Care Team that, in the last 21/2 years, the grieving process has gone smoothly in the schools."

In the past, only a handful of people handled all of the district's grief cases, student services director Jim Knight said. Knight put together a specially trained team of 28, divided into four groups assigned to different schools, to spread the work.

Now, the team rotates among crises. In particularly difficult situations, more than one of the four groups responds, Knight said.

Two groups went to Hernando High last week after the deaths of Jason Lewis and Zak Lukas, two well-liked athletes with strong ties to the community.

Smith stressed that the team members do not offer therapy. Rather, they observe behavior and offer guidance and, if necessary, refer students to outside specialists. Many, such as clergy and hospice counselors, stand ready.

They also help organize schools' response to tragedy, if principals request their help. Sometimes, Smith said, a principal has decided to do without outside assistance. This time, the situation was too volatile to do without.

Hernando High opened the day Monday with a large group memorial where more than 100 students gathered to share their thoughts and prayers.

"We just spoke to the children about how it's okay to be sad," Whitaker said. "We told them we would be available. ... We stayed in that large group for a while."

Then some of the most affected youngsters, such as the boys' soccer teammates, went to a separate room to talk with a Care Team member and other adults. From those smaller groups, Care Team members identified students who might need more help.

"We are in there to assess the need of this child," Smith said. "Can their needs be resolved just by talking to us? Or do they need to be referred?"

All referrals to outside agencies require parental permission.

Team members also helped separate those who might be using the tragedy as an excuse to skip class from those with true concerns. And they made sure no one simply wandered the halls upset and unnoticed.

Some planned to attend the memorial services for the two boys, just to be there for anyone who needed them.

In many instances, Smith said, students help themselves in small gatherings, where team members lead the conversation with thought-provoking questions.

"Nothing magical happens in the room," she said. "The magic is, in the high school, being with other kids. That's the healing force."

But the deaths of Lewis and Lukas evoked some painful memories for a few students, Whitaker said. Some continued to come to her office throughout the week. For instance, one girl said she simply could not bear going to her first-period class, which she shared with Lukas.

"She spent first period with me. We talked about the (memorial) services coming up. We talked about what is going on in her life," Whitaker said. "This is just amplifying it."

Some children were feeling guilty because they were starting to feel normal, rather than sad, she added.

Listening is one of the team's key roles, Whitaker said.

Things work somewhat differently at elementary and middle schools, Smith noted.

At elementary schools, the students generally are too young for a tragedy to have a lasting effect. Faculty members often are more upset than the children, she said, and the team responds accordingly.

More counselors are needed at middle schools, she continued. Unlike high schools, where students are encouraged to spend time together, at middle schools the team focuses on directed programs where children act individually.

"Having them together, I have found, can cause more chaos," Smith said.

After each response, team members review what took place, so they can improve the system for the next time. They also get a debriefing of their own, Smith said, "so we can go on."

Whitaker said she has to talk to other counselors after dealing with the children.

"I had to have somebody to let off steam to," she said of her experience at Hernando High last week. "It's hard to be strong and come back every day. I'm human."

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to .

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