In year with 7 student deaths, Fort Worth school district counselors face difficult task

One student died in a plane crash. Two young girls succumbed to the H1N1 virus. Two athletes suddenly collapsed and died from heart conditions. At least three students committed suicide.

The deaths have made it a difficult year for counselors in the Fort Worth school district, where much of their time has been spent helping students deal with the sudden loss of classmates.

Their job is to help students grieve but also to always watch for traumatic reactions, said Kathryn Everest, the district's director of guidance and counseling.

"You have to have the training in counseling and trauma response," Everest said. "Without proper training in trauma, if an adult talks to a student about their emotions and gets them to a raw place and then sends them home, that can be incredibly dangerous or even life-threatening."

Dunbar High School Principal Doug Williams witnessed counselors' work first hand in January.

He said his school was shaken to the core when sophomore Eric Schultz died when his plane crashed during a flying lesson. It was nearly impossible to move on with classes because so many students and teachers were close to him, Williams said.

Throughout the day, classmates filed into the school library, where they shared their thoughts of Schultz with one another and the school's crisis response team, made up of counselors and other key personnel. They filled several feet of butcher paper with messages and memories, and it was presented to his parents during a school memorial.

"No learning is going to take place if you just try to move on," Williams said. "The counselors helped us talk about our emotions and feelings. It let everyone just stop and say, 'Hey, what happened is not normal,' and talk about it and Eric's life. We can't move forward without dealing with that first."

From chaos, a plan is born

Ten years ago Everest was reeling in the aftermath of the Wedgwood Baptist Church shootings, where a deranged gunman burst into a youth rally and killed seven people before shooting himself.

District counselors and psychologists worked with several hundred students across the district who had been directly or indirectly affected by the shootings.

Everest said the whole ordeal was chaotic -- from identifying who was in need to coordinating the outpouring of offers to help. She realized then that the district needed training and an organized plan for dealing with traumatic incidents that affect so many.

"As a community, we all needed to know how we fit into an incident," Everest said.

Now counselors, campus administrators, nurses and other staff receive a week's training on how to respond to a crisis, including the death of a student, where they learn to notice the difference between grief and trauma.

Because Fort Worth's staff receives specialized training, its counselors are often called on to help other districts in times of need, officials said. This year, Everest said, they helped meet the Arlington school district's counseling needs after a fiery accident in which a police officer's motorcycle collided with a school bus, killing him.Both grief and trauma were seen this year when two students died of H1N1 flu. Chloe Lindsey, a 14-year-old student at Leonard Middle School, contracted the virus and died a few days later. Yeimi Sierra Reyes, a 4-year-old pre-kindergarten student at Carter Park Elementary School, died from the illness in October.

While grief brings sadness, pain and anger, traumatic reactions often result in students having an intense fear of dying. Traumatized students also have a hard time talking about what happened.

'Safe rooms'

When a student dies, the first step is to identify classmates and faculty members who were close to the student, said Cindy Bethany, the district's first critical-incident specialist.

A "safe room" is designated so that those directly affected by a loss can mourn together. Counselors follow up with those who may need additional help.

Southwest High School senior Katelyn Bonnell spent almost a full day in such a safe room in December when Ryan Powell, a popular baseball player, suddenly died from a heart condition.

Bonnell said she talked with counselors and others about Powell, a friend whom she'd known since the seventh grade and who had been her homecoming date during her freshman year.

"They had us talk about all the good things about Ryan, sign posters and write a letter to him saying what we wanted to share," Bonnell said. "It helped me a lot to accept that he is in a better place now."

About two weeks after Powell's death, a Paschal High School athlete, Xavier Ramirez, died suddenly from a heart condition as he was working out at the school's track.

And Southwest was hit hard again when two students committed suicide. Another student at a nearby school also committed suicide around the same time.

Baseball coach Mike Thompson said the sadness and other emotions in those trying weeks were overwhelming at times.

"You start to question yourself and ask, Why? Did I say anything or do anything?" Thompson said.

He said counselors from Southwest and nearby schools were crucial in helping him and the entire school through all the losses.

"They just lent an ear to us and watched over us to make sure we're OK," he said. "I am impressed by the way they did everything."

Dealing with the aftermath of suicide is often more complex than other deaths as classmates and teachers are dealing not only with grief but also guilt, Bethany said. Then it's a delicate balance to help students grieve for a friend without promoting the act, because one suicide can sometimes trigger another, Bethany said.

Everest said counselors have plans in place to help those at risk of suicide, which include assessment and outside resources. Officials are also working on a districtwide plan for suicide prevention and education. The goal, she said, is to let students know they need to reach out for help -- either for their own needs or for a friend.

"We have to find a way to break the code of silence," she said. "It is not ratting out a friend by going to an adult and saying you think they need help."

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700