Crisis counseling teams in Colorado Springs' largest public school districts have been operating in overdrive.
"School campuses are really big families, and you see the losses taking a toll," said Kim Boyd, lead school psychologist for Falcon School District 49.
Five staff members have died in D-49 in the past year, three in rapid-fire succession this semester. A middle school teacher was killed in a skiing accident in March, the head of transportation was the victim of an unsolved homicide in February, and a bicycling accident last weekend claimed the life of a top administrator. On Friday night, a crash caused by a suspected drunken driver claimed the life of an 18-year-old Falcon High School student who was set to graduate in May.
At least seven Colorado Springs School District 11 students have passed away this school year. One committed suicide, another died in a car crash over winter break, two elementary school students were killed in a family murder-suicide in January, a high school student was hit by a car while walking to school in February, and two high school students were killed in March, victims of a double homicide.
Dealing with this year's losses led District 11 to revamp its procedures for follow-up care starting in the fall, said Cory Notestine, counseling facilitator for D-11.
Academy School District 20, the region's second largest school district, has faced at least three student suicides at different schools in recent months.
Last week was particularly difficult in D-49's Falcon Zone, where Julia Roark, who lost her life April 8 while riding her bicycle near the community soccer fields, oversaw education programs and services at a grouping of five schools.
The misfortune had wide ripples, impacting staff, students, parents and community members, Boyd said.
"Teachers get worn down sometimes, when they lose staff or students year after year, and it becomes a kindling effect when you're talking about grief," she said.
For 17 years, Boyd has led D-49's Grief, Trauma and Loss Team, which mobilizes after a death, natural disaster, security breach or other upsetting events.
Though the district has grown from 6,000 students when she started to the region's third largest with nearly 21,000 students, "the instances are becoming more frequent, percentage-wise," Boyd said.
Typically, D-49 has two or three deaths over an entire year, she said.
'That empty chair'
School districts come up with their own procedures and methods for handling tragedies, and it's different than it used to be.
Today's grim news often hits via social media, and school districts scramble to "triage" the situation, Boyd said.
To quell rumors, they verify what's happened with law enforcement, then contact district leaders, classroom teachers and others impacted.
"My team knows if there's a phone call at 10 at night or on a Sunday afternoon that something's going on," Boyd said.
Emails and staff meetings follow.
Members of the affected family have a say in what information gets released, Notestine said.
"Oftentimes the details only the family knows; some want to share that and some would rather it be private," he said.
Students usually hear a statement read in small groups, such as homeroom or first period.
Last Monday, D-49 students heard that Roark had passed away in an accident, and that students may see staff visibly upset. Students were encouraged to "take a moment for a special act of kindness."
"We wanted to give kids the opportunity to have empathy and sympathy," Boyd said.
In D-11, counselors are positioned in classrooms to look for reactions and help students, Notestine said.
"Sometimes when they see that empty chair, it hits them for the first time," he said. "We let them know they can seek support throughout the day."
Counselors, psychologists and social workers set up tables in the school's library for students to talk and grieve, Notestine said.
"Students need to be heard and understood," he said. "Most of the time, they want to understand and know why."
While staff often try to deal with the situation privately, students usually have an outward emotional response, Boyd said, and want to talk about what happened, their relationship to the person and memories.
"We let kids know it's OK and important to feel," she said. "It's going to hit you; allow it."
It's normal for people to be sad, angry, hurt, confused and cry, and counselors look for persistent reactions, which can indicate a problem.
"You don't want to get stuck in any one stage of the grieving process," Boyd said. "We talk about grief as being like a tidal wave that becomes less higher and further apart as time goes on. If it doesn't relent in a week or two, it may be time to get further support."
Sleeplessness, overeating or not eating can be signs of depression or anxiety, she said.
Schools also have materials for parents, such as advice on how to talk to children about death, how to support children, how to look for signs of prolonged grief and what's available in the community in terms of professional therapy.
Teachers try to maintain normal schedules but may "lighten the load," by forgoing or postponing a planned test, or adding a group activity, Boyd said.
For D-49 staff, substitute teachers and assistants are available to step in and give employees time to take a break.
"We try to stabilize the environment and help them feel safe and secure," Boyd said. "It gives them a sense of control, which is missing when someone dies."
Children's grief may not look the same as adults, and can take the form of misbehavior, according to the experts. Depending on their age, children "have a different understanding of time and permanency," Boyd said.
For instance, she said, students at risk for suicide sometimes say they want to see who comes to their funeral, and don't seem to realize they wouldn't be able to do that if they were gone.
The higher-than-usual number of sudden student deaths this year will mean changes for crises next year in D-11, the region's largest school district.
"We sat down and re-evaluated and will roll out a new response process that's streamlined," Notestine said.
Small-group counseling, therapy dogs, additional support for staff, having more community organizations do presentations at schools and responding to multiple, concentrated crises have been discussed.
"We're looking for the best way to have a therapeutic environment in our schools," Notestine said.
Remembrance rather than memorials
Many schools no longer do memorials, such as walls with photos of the deceased, or plaques or some sort of marker on school property.
Boyd said people used to plant trees or dedicate a bench in memory of lost students or employees of D-49, but then it would be re-traumatizing if the tree died or the bench was vandalized.
"Columbine taught us that," she said, referring to the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, when memorials became a topic of debate.
"We feel all deaths and all lives should be treated with respect, and we shouldn't differentiate between accidental, suicide or natural deaths," she said.
In addition, "We don't want our kids to have to walk through a graveyard to get to class."
The district does recommend "doing something for the people who are left," such as a scholarship fund, a service project in remembrance of the deceased, a fundraiser for the family.
Last week, Boyd took baskets filled with blank notecards to the D-49 schools that Roark worked with, for staff to write memories, prayers or well wishes to the family.
"It can help with closure with a sudden accident, to have a moment to say goodbye," she said.
Margaret Curnow, a reading interventionist at Woodmen Hills Elementary, wrote a note because she thought it was important to let the family know the impact Roark had on both the school and her personally.
"Julia was our zone leader for less than two years, but in that time she truly brought our zone together and modeled caring support," Curnow said. "She was a great listener and worked tirelessly on our behalf and for the good of our students. We will truly miss her."
Boyd collected the notes on Friday, and Peter Hilts, the district's chief education officer, is delivering them to the family. District employees also helped the family plan Roark's service, which was Saturday.
"They were struggling and overwhelmed," Boyd said, "so we offered assistance."
The weeks leading up to the end of school and graduation ceremonies can be tough for students, Notestine said.
"We have stress from state assessments, AP, IB, SAT tests and end-of-year exams. That level of stress plus past history of loss in schools plus individual issues make this a difficult time of the year," he said.
For the past three years, Colorado Springs area schools have had a rash of student suicides in the spring.
Notestine said he hopes parents, students and staff remain alert and on the lookout for students struggling, so they can get the support and help they need.
"Be aware of your peers, and speak up if you notice different behavior or hear something," he said.