Teen tragedy a challenge for schools
David Ryan accepted the principal’s position at Nashua North High School in June 2006. He will never forget his first official duty: attending thewakes of Nicole Scontsas and Stephanie McGowan. The sophomore friends and field hockey players died June 25 of that year, after Scontsas’ car hydroplaned off Exit 8 on the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Nashua.
Recalling those early days, Ryan said it was an extremely difficult time; the girls’ deaths hit the entire school community hard.
“These kids are 14, 16, 18 years old; they’re struggling with their own lives,” Ryan said this week. “(They) don’t know how to deal with death.”
When a young person dies unexpectedly, school communities can also be thrown into the throes of catastrophe. Many have crisis response teams and step-by-step plans to deal with sudden death.
Schools field calls from lots of concerned parties, including the media, widening the web of communication. And schools can ultimately become part of the healing process, as leaders steer them toward a slow – but never fully complete – recovery.
And all the while, the principals said, there’s the challenge of striking a delicate balance between recognizing profound sorrow and loss and picking up, moving forward.
“While a tragedy, we have to be sensitive that it’s not everyone’s tragedy,” Ryan said.
Last week, The Telegraph spoke to several high school principals who have experienced such losses.
These principals will also tell you that crisis checklists can quickly customize, stretching and changing based on the school community’s needs. However prepared they may be, they’re never truly prepared to lose a member of the student body.
In 2006, two flags flew over the nation’s capitol – one for Nicole, one for Stephanie. Later, they were displayed in a case at the school, and last year, during what would have been the girls’ graduation, Ryan presented them – folded and encased – to the girls’ families.
In Nashua North’s two-inch thick binder outlining the crisis response plan, you will not find a directive that the school principal request flags be flown for fallen students in Washington, D.C.
Ryan did that on his own.
Twice in the seven years that Ken Johnson has been the principal of Merrimack High School, he’s lost a student.
The first was Laura Wolf, who at 17 died in a 2004 crash while coming home with friends from a snowboarding trip just after Christmas. The second was Joshua Barnaby, 16, who died in 2007 at a popular swimming hole on the Souhegan River.
To this day, Johnson still tears up at their memories; he quietly declined to speak their names during an interview.
“When you talk about the impact on the community, it’s devastating,” Johnson said. “You’re affected and touched by it either based on your relationship with the student or your role.”
Johnson recalled that Laura’s mother gave gifts to the staff during holidays, and her father was generous to the school, but Johnson had had few interactions with Laura as a student.
So in her case, their connection was through a role.
He was asked to speak at her memorial.
In the church, two, maybe three people were supposed to speak before him.
As the priest called the first forward, Johnson tried to stay composed.
“I was thinking, ‘You cannot fall apart emotionally in front of these kids,’ ” he said.
But the first speaker couldn’t begin. Nor could the next.
Suddenly, it was Johnson’s turn. He had written enough to be prepared, but when he reached the front of the church, he crushed the paper.
He decided to speak from the heart.
Johnson’s most vivid memory is looking at the faces of the kids in the church.
At one point during his remarks, he remembers catching the eye of a student. Johnson doesn’t recall who the student was, just that he seemed to mouth the name of his principal.
“I don’t know what it means, but it was a connection,” Johnson said. “That was this crystallizing moment . . . an honest moment, when everyone in the room was completely vulnerable. And that was real.”
In both Laura and Joshua’s cases, the school’s crisis team – comprising administrators, department leaders, councilors and the school nurse – identified and contacted friends, siblings, adults likely to be affected, former boyfriends and girlfriends. Each has a task.
In both cases, councilors went to homes of those most affected, and Johnson addressed the deaths over the intercom. Councilors were available as needed.
“I think the whole school is hypersensitive for a period of time, fearful that this is going to happen again soon,” Johnson said.
The 2005 school year, he said, changed everything for him as a principal.
It had become customary at the annual staff barbecue for him to characterize the past year.
But in 2005, he looked out at the faces in the crowd. He realized that he knew too much about many personal hardships. He realized there were probably many more he knew nothing about.
After 2005, Johnson stopped topping his remarks with, “Well, what a great year!”
“Because each and every person has their own experience, and how could I be so callous?” he said. “The one constant is the good work they do.”
Described as one of China’s most scenic areas, the 271-mile-long Li River stretches from the Mao’er Mountains in the east, through the countryside and bamboo forests, and south to the city of Wuzhou.
On Thursday, April 30, a group from Milford boarded a boat for a tour of the waterway.
Brad Craven left the group and found a solitary spot by a window.
There, he could see the steep rock outcroppings high above the water’s edge, and lower, the water buffalo.
It was a peaceful place. For Craven, it was where he found some simple words about two boys and wrote them down.
Craven has been the principal of Milford High School since 1994.
During the last week of April vacation, he was in China as part of a “community learning tour” with a group of staff, students and residents.
On April 27, while on an overnight train between Beijing and X’ian, a fellow traveler handed Craven a BlackBerry with the terrible news: Two Milford High School students, Gage LaFontaine and Alex Betty, both 16, had died in a car crash. Their friend and the driver, fellow student Gino Olsen, had been seriously hurt.
From half a world away, Craven immediately set to action, using cell phones and e-mail to send school leaders instructions and receive updates.
Being away from the school, where he has been on staff since 1981, was “very, very stressful.”
“I just wanted to be here,” he said in a recent interview, clenching his fingers. “It was very distressing.”
At the same time, Craven deeply trusted the team he had left at the school. Assistant Principal Diane Doran coordinated efforts in Milford.
Each staff member was called individually about the news, including the school’s four counselors and social worker.
“Everyone came at the drop of a hat,” Doran said.
A core group of school staff reached out to families immediately Tuesday, the day after the crash. Then, the team met at the school each vacation day, providing e-mail updates to colleagues and personal counseling to kids who came in.
About halfway through school vacation, students at the school asked how the tragedy would be addressed when classes resumed the following week.
“Their big fear was, ‘Well, what are you going to do? Is there going to be an assembly? Or what?’ ” Doran recalled.
No assembly. Those types of gatherings in the wake of such a wrenching event can breed even more heightened emotions.
Instead, school leaders focused on preparing to achieve a difficult balance, Craven said: to recognize the pain, which for some students was particularly deep, while keeping the school looking forward.
“In the depths of your soul, as a parent, you can’t think of anything worse. Period. The end. Yet, what I think gets you through is all these kids here.”
On the night of the Li River boat ride, while in a hotel room in Guilin, Craven connected with his assistant in Milford.
Through the phone, he recorded the pledge of allegiance, which he does every morning. He recorded his message about Alex and Gage. Last, he recorded his request for a moment of silence.
Days later, when students returned Monday, May 4 – and while Craven was flying high above the clouds and anxious to get home – Milford High School heard the voice of its principal.
It told them that the situation was horrible.
It advised that life is a delicate proposition, that it might remind them to live in appreciation of one another. And it said that perhaps they should focus on the gifts that the boys had left behind.