Las Vegas Sun

May 27, 2024

When tragedy strikes in schools, district’s crisis team moves into action

Vigil for Alyssa Otremba

Steve Marcus

Samantha Forecki, 15, center, and her mother, Michele Enk, hold up candles during a vigil for 15-year-old Alyssa Otremba at Arbor View High School Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011. Otremba, an Arbor View sophomore and school band member, was found slain on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. “She became my best friend. She knew me better than anybody,” Forecki said.

In the aftermath of a student’s death, a small battalion of school psychologists and counselors descends upon the school to help other students, parents and staff cope with grief.

The psychological wounds can be deep, the tragedy of losing a fellow classmate shocking.

In her 27 years with the Clark County School District, Rosemary Virtuoso has seen her fair share of tragic events involving Las Vegas children: suicides and accidents, shootings and stabbings. As the coordinator of the School District’s department of student threat and crisis response, Virtuoso is responsible for picking up the pieces in the wake of a student’s death.

“Our goal is to support kids and ultimately get them back on track,” Virtuoso said. “There can be lingering (psychological) issues, but in general, children are highly resilient. They will get through (a crisis).”

Forged in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, the School District’s crisis department — which consists of two administrators, three counselors and six psychologists — is largely a preventive operation against a variety of issues facing students today. (The School District employs nearly 200 school psychologists and 700 counselors to serve more than 350 schools but retains a small team of specialists to support schools in times of crisis.)

The team administers psychological assessments to head off student threats against schools. The team conducts interviews and recommends outside treatment for students thinking about suicide. The department also develops and updates “crisis plans” — drills, evacuation and lockdown procedures — to comply with a state mandate that every Nevada school plan for contingencies such as natural disasters and school intruders.

But the team also plays a reactionary role in the wake of a student or teacher death. This school year has seen a rash of student suicides and murders, an alcohol-related death and pedestrian fatalities. The most recent crisis occurred Friday when a school bus fatally struck Allen Elementary School fifth-grader Kaylee Derks, 11.

Click to enlarge photo

Jessica Weinman and Tia Noll, right, listen at a vigil in September 2008 at Bob Miller Middle School in honor of Josh Stevens, who died in a golf cart accident at the Anthem Country Club.

After Friday's accident, Virtuoso’s entire team went immediately to work, meeting over the weekend to plan counseling services and prepare informational packets for students and parents. The department also worked with school administrators and the district’s communication department to draft a letter to parents explaining the news and what services are available to grieving students, parents and staff.

On Monday, members of the district’s crisis response team were dispatched to the northern valley elementary school, where they broke the news to staff, and then classroom by classroom, to students. Children who were most affected — close friends and witnesses to the accident — were given individualized and group therapy.

“There’s a normal grieving process, and then there’s abnormal (processes) because there are other underlying issues,” Virtuoso said. “Witnesses have an additional stress because they were there. Children who recently lost their grandpa … have emotional proximity (to the death). Those are the ones who go beyond the normal grieving process and need support.”

Other students, parents and teachers seeking counseling were also helped, Virtuoso said. Her team spent the entire day, and offered further grief-counseling services — in addition to the school’s psychological and counseling services — throughout the week. Parents of children who seek help are notified afterward, she said.

Amid the economic downturn, however, Virtuoso has seen rising demand for her department’s services. From the 2009 to 2010 school years, the number of referrals for counseling and psychological services within the crisis department increased by two-thirds, she said.

Although demand for psychological and counseling services has increased, funding for these services has been slashed amid multimillion-dollar budget cuts to the School District, Virtuoso said. Her department has shed 20 percent of staff in the past several years, Virtuoso said.

Click to enlarge photo

Spencer Cofer looks at photographs of his friend, Josh Stevens, who died in September 2008 after being thrown from a golf cart. A vigil was held at Bob Miller Middle School in Stevens' honor.

“Just like the rest of the mental health community, we do feel the cuts,” she said. “The sad thing in Clark County is these kinds of cuts impact the department as the need for services is increasing.”

A student’s death can trigger underlying problems, which can bubble up to the surface, Virtuoso said. Problems at home can exacerbate the grief, leading to psychological issues, she said.

While elementary school-age children tend to rely on adult figures — teachers and parents — for emotional support, older children and teenagers tend to rely on their friends for emotional support, Virtuoso said.

And while younger children may not yet fully comprehend a crisis, teenagers are old enough to understand the finality of a fellow student’s death, Virtuoso said. A tragic event can radically change a teenager’s worldview as they are making sense of their life, she said.

“Parents and we as adults aren’t as resilient because of compounding issues,” she said, adding that it has become harder to provide for children’s emotional well-being. “Because of the economic downturn, starting from 2008, 2009, kids are a bit less resilient.”

That’s why it’s important for parents to conduct an “emotional temperature check” on children in the aftermath of a crisis situation, Virtuoso said. Structured activities and talking about issues of loss and death can also help students cope with a loss of a loved one, she said.

Parents should answer any questions, but not go too much into detail, and regularly talk with their children to gauge their emotional state and behaviors. If students are acting outside of the norm, parents are encouraged to seek help by contacting the school psychologist or counselor, Virtuoso said.

For more information about the School District’s crisis department, call 799-7449.

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