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Wesley Chapel is left to grieve

In public and in private, the school community is wrestling with varied attempts to cope with a recent string of deaths.

By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published October 29, 2006


WESLEY CHAPEL - Star Thompson remembers how she reacted when her mother came into her bedroom last Saturday night to tell her that Taylor Tedesco died in an ultralight plane crash.

The 16-year-old girl burst into tears and punched the wall in a haze of shock and rage.

Nearly 1,000 miles away, in Virginia, Taylor's cousin, Benn Tedesco, had just returned from his high school's homecoming dance when his father called from Wesley Chapel.

Something's happened to Taylor, his father told him.

"I broke down," said 16-year-old Benn, who lives with his mother. "I threw the phone across the room."

Their reactions are the snapshots of a community in grief, still groping its way out of the darkness.

With five deaths this year among current students and recent graduates of Wesley Chapel High School, students and administrators say 2006 might just be the school's worst year to date.

Taylor and his father, firefighter Nick Tedesco, died in a plane crash. In July, Derek Pieper and Raymond Veluz were gunned down. Tiffany Evans died in a car crash last month. Eric Morales and Garrett Farmer died of health problems.

"I was just telling someone earlier that I feel like there's a dark cloud over Wesley Chapel this fall," principal Andrew Frelick said.

"It's almost as if the school is suffering some kind of institutional depression," said assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, a psychologist by training. "People start thinking, 'Is this bad juju?' You have to tell them it's just random."

Public order

In a high school with 1,900 students, the wake of tragedy spreads quickly and settles into two sets of reactions: the public order of crisis management and the chaos of private grief.

On one end is the official response, a policy procedure of automated phone messages from the principal, and counselors with Kleenexes setting up shop in conference rooms. Memorials and moments of silence. Discreet plaques mounted on school grounds.

To some extent, that's the easy part.

The school district also has a 32-member crisis intervention team of psychologists, nurses and social workers, divided into four sub-districts and deployed to schools to counsel staff and students.

The team swings into action when health issues, tragedy or some other form of crisis comes up. It offers individual or group counseling, sets up rooms to do this and sends letters to parents or guardians.

This year, the team has had its hands full at Wesley Chapel High.

"It feels a lot busier than it has in the past," said Lizette Alexander, who directs the program.

Private grief

On the other end is a private world, hidden from the official embrace of crisis management.

This is where veteran administrators cry in their cars on the way home. Where students skip school and avoid counselors, preferring to talk among themselves. Where MySpace takes on the role of a de facto teen community center.

When Wesley Chapel's Weightman Middle School went through four school-related deaths in 2004 and 2005, it drew the same miasma of depression that now grips its neighboring high school.

Kirsten Joyer, an assistant principal there who is also a member of the district's crisis intervention team, made sure her doors were always open. But the woman who held things together was the same one who broke down in private.

"Walking into a classroom to see those two empty desks ... that really does a number on you emotionally," she said. "I was crying in the car all the way home. I couldn't do it in front of the staff or the students."

Grief counseling in schools doesn't always cut it.

At Taylor Tedesco's vigil Wednesday, Jason Rissler, 17, another Wesley Chapel High student who grew up with Taylor, stood quiet and alone, his eyes distant as he wrestled with his thoughts. He didn't want to talk to the counselors at school.

"All they would do is listen anyway," he said. "I prefer to work through these things myself."

Talking to friends helps, Jason said. With friends, the sentiments and the anecdotes are refracted through prisms of shared experience. "With friends, it's give-and-take," he said.

It's different for everyone.

"My mom wanted me to hang out with my friends," Benn Tedesco said.

Did it help? Benn shook his head - no.

If there is one new clearing house for articulating emotions, MySpace appears to be the teens' forum of choice. Not all administrators like its freewheeling near-anarchy.

"It's like kids with their research papers - you have to know the validity of the sources," Frelick said. "I don't agree with MySpace for a lot of things, but it's there."

MySpace is the place where teens are free to use the shorthand slang of their time. No one there tells them how to feel or react, or even corrects their spelling.

The Web site was where students opened their emotional wounds after Pieper and Veluz lost their lives. No one has been charged in their deaths.

On Taylor's MySpace Web site, similar tributes poured forth for the cross-country runner and creative photographer, who also emerged as a young man with an edgy sense of humor, an innate kindness and many friends.

"I remember when we were freshmans * we used to go to sleep every single day in English class," said a writer who changed his screen name to 'RIP Taylor.' "We always got in trouble. U always made me laugh wit everythin u did."

This is also where Star, who took two days off school to deal with Taylor's death, wrote an elegy for her close friend.

"I remember telling u that i felt like i had to grow up faster than everyone else cause my grandma got cancer and i helped her through till she died and u told me to 'ungrow,' " she wrote. "God i miss u."

Cry all they want

In the public and private worlds, the way schools and students deal with grief has changed since the early 1970s, Joyer said.

Whatever the forum, talk is now encouraged.

When she was 7, living in Wichita, Kan., Joyer lost her father to pancreatic cancer. She was pulled out of class and sent home for two weeks.

"When I came back, no one talked about it," said Joyer, now 42.

She was asked to leave her Brownie troop; apparently the tragedy made others uncomfortable.

"They told me the other kids didn't know what to say to me," Joyer said. "That's when I thought to myself, if I were ever one day to be in the position, I'd let them talk about it all they want, and cry all they want."

Last Wednesday, Joyer went to Wesley Chapel High at the request of some of her former Weightman students now at the high school who felt comfortable with her.

She let them talk, let them cry.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at 813909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.