Neal Elementary School honored for handling of tragedies

When 10-year-old Lucas Ahlbach died in fall 2015, his school’s administration comforted not only his family, but his fellow students and teachers.

Lucas suffered from a rare form of brain and spinal cord cancer. He attended Neal Elementary School from first through fifth grade. He was diagnosed in third grade, and his family kept the school updated on his condition throughout.

The northeast valley school, at 6651 W. Azure Drive, was recently honored with the Children’s Voice award by Adam’s Place for the way the school’s administration handles such ordeals.

School counselor LeahAnn Siemen called on the school district’s crisis team to work with a few students, and she also welcomed those wanting to talk to her about the passing.

Richard Pultorak, the physical education teacher and flag football coach at Neal, also talked to students who struggled to understand what was happening and got T-shirts and jerseys made in Lucas’s honor. His classmates created a logo for the jersey, featuring a cancer-awareness ribbon on the shoulder.

Pultorak also created a pink jersey for a former student, Brooklynn Mohler, 13, who was killed in a shooting in 2013.

“That whole day was something that I barely remember at this point, but I remember how amazing they all were,” said Lucas’s mother, Tiffany. “If any school deserves it, it’s Neal. They go above and beyond when it comes to these tragedies that happen.”

The school held Lucas’s funeral reception in its multipurpose room, where teachers served and provided food, put together floral arrangements for the tables and created a wreath with his favorite colors — green and purple — where students attached personal notes for him.

This is the first year that Adam’s Place — a local nonprofit that offers support for children and parents who have lost a loved one — has honored a school with the Children’s Voice award. Neal received the award after 14-year-old volunteer Peyton Barsel conducted a survey for the organization’s patients. She asked them to share if a school had reached out to a child or family after a loss, if teachers were supportive upon the child’s return and more.

“The only people who had positive responses were those who went to Neal,” Barsel said at a recent awards ceremony.

The Meadows School freshman, who lost her father when she was 9, said she was ostracized by friends and peers because she was constantly sad, and her school didn’t have a counselor for her to talk to.

“People treated me like I had the plague or something,” she said.

As for her brother, who was 5 at the time, his class found out about their father’s death through a mass email sent out by a parent, which caused more issues.

Barsel said she has worked to educate her school about the issue and hopes a guidance counselor will be hired at her school to help bereaved students.

Not every school has a guidance counselor, as it depends on the population and need of the school, said Clark County School District spokesman David Roddy. And at those that do, the counselors have many roles — including grief counseling, but that is not their primary function. This is where the district’s crisis team steps in.

Ninety-two percent of educators — including teachers, teacher assistants, counselors and staffers — say childhood grief needs more attention from schools, according a survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers and the New York Life Foundation in 2012. Additionally, 50 percent of teachers gave their school a grade of C or lower for the job it does of supporting bereaved children. Ninety-three percent of teachers said they have never received training.

Barsel’s mother, Kelly, kept her children enrolled at Meadows because she likes the school.

“By no means did anyone do anything that I thought was wrong,” she said of Meadows.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students provides free resources for educators to learn about how to handle children’s bereavement.

Last year, Neal dedicated a memorial garden to former students as well as teachers Bronwyn Richards and Lisa Violanti, whose names are engraved on a stone bench in the front of the school.

“Families feel that Neal is a home to them and whenever they pass it, they think of their children in a happy way because their children enjoyed it here so much,” said principal Denise Murray.

Many schools, like Neal, refer children to Adam’s Place for grief support as well. However, board President Kelly Boyers said the organization cannot handle the number of people who need assistance.

“The number of kids going through this is very high, but the resources are small,” Boyers said. “We have a wait list now. We don’t have the capacity.”

Five percent of children nationwide will experience a parent’s death before they turn 18, according to Kenneth Doka, editor of Omega, Journal of Death of Dying.

Boyers created a bill draft request aimed at increasing the fee for death certificates by $2 to fund grief support for children and families. Sen. Tick Segerblom is proposing it in the Legislature.

Segerblom said that if the bill is approved, nonprofit organizations will have to apply for funds.

To reach View intern reporter Kailyn Brown, call 702-387-5233 or email kbrown@viewnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @KailynHype.

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