87°F
weather icon Partly Cloudy

Grief counselors step up when Clark County students are aching

The crisis situations vary, but the mission doesn’t: help return a sense of normalcy and routine for Clark County students experiencing trauma and grief.

There’s no telling what might trigger a collective emotional breakdown at a school. It may be a student or staff death, a car accident, an employee arrest, an at-home issue or a natural disaster.

“It’s a catchall,” said Joe Roberts, the Clark County School District’s department of student threat evaluation and crisis response coordinator. “We get a call that says, ‘We’ve got a crisis at our school and we don’t know how to handle it.’”

That’s when Roberts’ team of nine grief counselors responds.

Because of privacy concerns, the district does not release details about individual cases or how often counselors head into schools. But consider the events of just last month:

In early February, the longtime athletic director at Arbor View High School was arrested on child pornography charges. That same week, an 11-year-old from Woodbury Middle School was struck and killed by a garbage truck in southeast Las Vegas, and a 16-year-old was killed by a suspected drunken driver on the way to Shadow Ridge High School. Then, another Shadow Ridge student was shot and killed on a basketball court.

Each time, a counselor responded.

“Our days went well because of them,” said Elena Baker, the interim principal at Woodbury. “There’s no way a school alone has those resources. To have the district provide that is heaven-sent.”

Eight to 10 counselors spent a day at Woodbury and remained on call the following day, she said.

Counselors spent almost two full days at Shadow Ridge High School after 16-year-old Jaelen Fajardo was killed on his way to school, principal Travis Warnick said. In the three other cases at the school, he said, counselors spent one full day and stayed on call afterward.

“One thing I don’t think the public realizes is our staff is also grieving. We know the kids and we grieve, too,” he said. “(Counselors) can take that burden from us, and it allows us to grieve as well.”

Each week, grief counselors, who are centralized in an office building on Pecos McLeod Road, typically respond to two deaths of either students or staff, according to district officials.

INCREASED NEED

The department of threat evaluation and crisis response is part of the larger department of psychological services, which employs about 200 licensed professionals.

While they’re typically associated with death, grief counselors deal with a much broader range of situations, said Melissa Reeves, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. After the election, Reeves said, grief counselors in some states were called to respond to concerns about deportation.

“Anything that may or may not impact students,” she said. “It runs the whole gamut.”

Sometimes it can feel as if there are increased incidents, said Robert Weires, the director of psychological support, who oversees the department.

“There can be cycles to it,” he said.

Social media has played a major role in the process. While students are trying to come to terms with their grief, they are often bombarded with social media posts charged with emotion and filled with rumors.

“Nowadays, it’s 24/7 news accessible via multiple modalities,” Reeves said. “Developmentally, the students may not be able to handle seeing all that.”

Spring used to be a busy time for grief counselors, she said. That was mostly because of the stress high school students were under with college admissions (or rejections), final exams and what Reeves called “growing pains.”

“It doesn’t seem like there’s ever much down time,” she said. “If you look at the types of events that can happen, I’d say now there’s no clear pattern.”

A FINE LINE

The first job when a call comes in is gauging the reaction, district officials said.

“Each school is going to be impacted differently,” Weires said. “Part of our response is to get a read on that.”

Four variables determine what kind of response is needed, Reeves said: proximity, personal vulnerability, threat perception and immediate reactions.

A flood in California, for example, likely wouldn’t trigger grief counselors in Las Vegas. Or the death of a student or staff member who had been absent battling an illness for a long time might not elicit a strong reaction among a school’s population.

Personal vulnerability involves examining existing triggers or determining whether the student may have a sensitivity to certain topics.

Threat perception is how safe a student feels on campus. If students are afraid the same tragedy could happen to them, they are more likely to need grief counselors.

Certain reactions are expected when tragedy hits, Reeves said. But if students and staff are showing more intense or prolonged reactions, counselors may need to spend more time and energy at that campus.

“It is very emotionally draining for the counselors. It’s a very hard job,” Weires said.

RETURN TO ROUTINE

Once in a school, a counselor will accompany the principal or another familiar face to make announcements to classes about what’s happened and what services are available.

The library, or another large school space, normally serves as a gathering place. Students who have shown signs of trauma can meet one on one or in group settings with counselors.

Counselors strive to let students’ questions guide the conversation.

“We don’t dwell on details, but we don’t want to hide things,” Weires said.

If a death is involved, students are encouraged to write cards or goodbye letters, an exercise Baker said her Woodbury students found helpful.

“There was no hysteria, nothing in the hallways because the counselors, they had a positive way,” she said.

Students also express their grief through art therapy, Roberts said.

There’s no set time for the counselors to remain in a school; returning students to a routine is the priority and might take longer than first thought.

Once that happens, Weires’ staff returns control to the school’s on-site counselors. Students may be referred to community resources if they need more help.

“You know when you walk away, you can say, ‘I made a difference,’ ” Weires said.

Contact Meghin Delaney at 702-383-0281 or mdelaney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @MeghinDelaney on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST