Schools tap district’s crisis response team to cope with student deaths

You’re a school administrator, and one of your students dies. What do you do?

Arbor View and Faith Lutheran Jr/Sr high schools faced that situation this month.

Arbor View student Alyssa Otremba, 15, was killed Sept. 2 walking home from school, and 16-year-old Faith Lutheran student Christina Portaro died Sept. 3 in an ATV accident in Brian Head, Utah.

Schools and their administrators prepare for these tragedies so they are able to respond to their students’ needs in the most effective way possible.

After learning of Alyssa’s death, Arbor View assistant principal Denise Tomchek communicated with the school’s administrative team and the Clark County School District.

She called the district’s Department of Student Threat Evaluation and Crisis Response, a group of 11 counselors, psychologists and staff members who respond to these and other types of crises.

"They take this serious," Tomchek said. "They have a specific plan for any situation, from bees on campus to shootings on campus."

The department is a great support system for schools, and it helps walk them through the process. Department coordinator Rosemary Virtuoso said they have a basic plan for every situation, but specifics can vary.

"Typically we try to sit down with the school and determine the needs," Virtuoso said. "We try to provide support and give them direction. We work through the presenting issues. In this case, it’s providing support that kids need."

With the many avenues of communication available, such as Twitter and Facebook, most, if not all, Arbor View students knew of their classmate’s death by the time school resumed after Labor Day. Tomchek’s daughter was actually the first to inform her that Alyssa’s body had been found.

The school wouldn’t be breaking the news to kids but instead preparing for their responses.

Alyssa was a member of the band, which had a rehearsal scheduled on Labor Day at the school. Arbor View counselors and some from the Crisis Response team were available at the school Monday to those students in the band who knew her best.

"The ones closest to her were the highest priority," Tomchek said.

The school also had extra counselors available Tuesday for any student or staff member grieving. The school also contacted all staff members and scheduled a meeting early Tuesday to go over procedure before students arrived.

Some of these things might seem like common-sense approaches, Tomchek said, but it helps to have them on paper.

"I tell the staff this is our plan," Tomchek said, "but if you have a blueprint in your mind of what you’re going to do, it’s less chaos. It’s so helpful, and we’re able to provide it to teachers. In an emergency situation, sometimes we don’t think quite clearly. It’s easier to see it in writing."

Faith Lutheran executive director Dr. Steve Buuck communicated the sad news over the three-day weekend with each family at the school through an automated voice message system. The message also informed families that counseling was available at the school for the school community.

He also arranged an early meeting with his staff members on Tuesday and provided them with a message he asked all teachers to read to students in their first-period classes. He provided Bible passages that he hoped would bring some comfort to the students and staff.

Buuck had local pastors available for counseling in the school’s library. The school also held a prayer ceremony that afternoon in the auditorium for the high school students. After school he regrouped with all the teachers to go over the day and address any student needs.

"We tried to bring comfort and peace," Buuck said. "They said the first and second blocks were the toughest. You try to provide as many avenues as possible for the students."

Both schools said they would work with kids who needed more time to grieve by extending assignment deadlines or helping kids catch up on schoolwork if they had absences related to the deaths.

The most important thing for the kids, officials at both schools said, is getting things back to normal as soon as possible.

"These are kids, and the best thing we can do for them is get things back to normal for them," Tomchek said. "The more normal it is, the better it is for them."

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at jmosier@viewnews.com or 224-5524.

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