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Lessons on Loss

How a school community heals after a student dies.

By Cindy Long

Because it was Halloween, 16-year-old Melody Ross was dressed up in a Super­girl costume the night she was shot.

She had just left the sold-out Woodrow Wilson High School homecoming football game in Long Beach, California, and was sitting shoulder to shoulder with friends on the school steps, chatting about their team’s loss. But before they could make their way inside for the big dance, gunfire erupted, sending hundreds running for cover. Witnesses say between five and seven shots were fired by warring rival gangs.

“Melody Ross was an innocent bystander, caught in the crossfire,” says Wilson High head counselor Gayle Marshburn.

The AP honors student and track athlete died at the hospital half an hour later that Friday night.

The following Monday, nearly all of Ross’s 4,000 fellow students filed into school stunned and saddened. Nobody wanted to stay home, but they couldn’t imagine going to class, either. They wanted to talk about what happened. They wanted to hug and cry. They wanted to leave flowers and notes and stuffed bears at a huge memorial erected for Melody at the site of the shooting. But mostly, they wanted to experience the love and support of the school community and mourn the loss of their friend and classmate together.

Photos by Jeff Gritchen/Long Beach Press-Telegram

It’s a grim fact of life that every year students from schools across the country will die in accidents, by violence, or from disease.

“It’s a sad thing to say, but we usually lose at least one student every year,” says Suzanne Huckaba, the head counselor at Central High School in Florence, Alabama, where just this year a junior drowned and a senior was killed in a car accident.

When a student life is lost, the resulting shock and sorrow can shake a school community to its core, but it’s that very core that provides the strength to help the other students and staff grieve, and ultimately heal.

“Schools are about young people, and young people are about life. When a young person dies, especially when it’s sudden, it completely disrupts the equilibrium of the school environment,” says Jerald Newberry, Executive Director of the National Education Association Health Information Network (NEA HIN). “But the care of the school community is what eventually restores balance.”

Having a crisis plan in place can help. Published online at http://neahin.org/crisisguide/, NEA HIN’s School Crisis Guide details the steps a school or district can take before, during, and after a crisis. Having the plan ready before tragedy strikes is essential so that educators know what to do in the days following.

At Woodrow Wilson High School, Mashburn and principal Sandy Blazer put their plan into place immediately. When students returned on the Monday following the shooting, twelve full-time counselors and psychologists were available. Some of them walked the halls; others staffed a crisis center—a designated space stocked with an endless supply of tissues that Marshburn established for students to talk with a counselor and watch a streaming video of Melody created by her classmates.

The most important thing a school can do in the days after a tragic event is allow the members of the community to express their grief, says Mashburn.

Often, those expressions need to be something the students can see and touch. Over the weekend following the shooting, the Wilson High students created a memorial at the spot where Melody was killed. By Monday it towered with balloons, poems, flowers, and other remembrances. Later that day, the entire school and much of the Long Beach community, including the mayor, gathered outside as 30 black balloons were released into the sky.

The students also created a Melody Ross memorial Facebook page, held a candlelight vigil, and, instead of their regular uniforms, wore black T-shirts every day for a week.

But young people aren’t the only ones impacted by the sudden death of a student.

“We have 157 teachers here and lots of these caring people were struggling after Melody’s death,” says principal Sandy Blazer. “Some of her actual teachers took it really, really hard. At an emergency faculty meeting, a few teachers broke down.”

Some educators were anxious about conducting their classes, so Blazer had counselors fill in for them. Others wanted to be in the classroom, but only to be with the students and talk about losing Melody on homecoming night.

Carol Rea teaches English at Central High School in Alabama. Twice this year she’s helped her students come to terms with the loss of a classmate, first when 17-year-old Frank Graham, a popular junior, drowned in the Tennessee River, and again when senior Britney Lanier, also 17, was killed in a car accident.

Frank was a funny, mischievous student whom everyone called “Bookie.” He was swimming with some classmates one Sunday when friends say he cramped up. Unable to make it back to shore, he drowned before they could save him. Most students didn’t know until they arrived at school on Monday morning.

Understanding that they were in shock, Rea asked her classes to spend time talking about Frank or writing about him in their journals. “We did this for a couple of days,” she says. “Some students wrote pages and pages, others chose not to write at all, but the main thing was to let them express their feelings.”

When Britney Lanier was killed in an accident just a few months later, it was a little harder on Rea—Britney was one of her students. They were studying epic heroes of British literature, and Britney had just submitted an essay about a hero in her own life: her grandfather, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Rea was deeply moved by Britney’s words and gave the essay to her mother, who asked Rea to read it at Britney’s funeral a few days later.

“The writing was wonderful, and very personal. It truly revealed Britney as a person,” Rea says. “Sharing her essay was a way to celebrate her life and the love she had with her family.”

She said class was difficult those first few days following Britney’s death. They talked about her smile, and her kindness. They wrote about her in their journals and shared funny stories.

“But it was hard. There was this empty seat in fifth period where she always sat,” Rea says. “Nobody wanted to sit there, but we needed to move on. We’ll never forget her and she’ll be forever etched in our memories. But we need to find closure.”

In Long Beach, principal Blazer and counselor Mashburn asked a crisis counselor to talk to the faculty about how to help the school community move on after the shooting. The counselor advised teachers to reconfigure their classrooms so that Melody’s chair wouldn’t sit empty week after week. He advised against making the desk a shrine because it would only serve as a constant, sad reminder.

He also told them to choose a final date for the memorial at the shooting site. They chose to disassemble the memorial one week later, and they asked Melody’s best friends to box up all the remembrances and deliver them to her parents.

Newberry (NEA HIN) agrees that the school should collectively decide on a date to return to routine. But until then, allow students the time for grieving. Kids who are struggling and don’t come to classes shouldn’t be counted as truant; if they don’t turn in their assignments, they should be given an extension. “But after you provide an environment to grieve and mourn for a period of time, it’s important to return to normalcy as soon as possible,” says Newberry. “Returning to a regular routine is essential to healing.”

Two weeks after Melody’s murder, Wilson High hosted its next home game. Melody’s parents and family were there, along with the mayor and chief of police. The football players normally wear “W” stickers on their helmets, but they turned them upside down to “M,” for Melody.

The game began with a moment of silence, and it ended with a Wilson win of 47 to 3, which they dedicated to Melody.

It was the team’s way of saying goodbye.

“I’ve never been so proud of Wilson high school,” says principal Blazer. “I’ve been there 38 years, and have never seen so much love among our students. We’re stronger as a result.”

Send comments to clong@nea.org.

Photo:  Photo: Jeff Gritchen/Long Beach Press-Telegram

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1-Mar-10


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