Dallas-area counselors respond to recent student deaths
May 12, 2017
MESQUITE, Texas (AP) — The May 6 fatal shooting of 16-year-old Wayne Osborne triggered an all-too-familiar response from Mesquite Independent School District counselors.
The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/2pGd6UK ) reports another young life lost, many innocent friends and classmates to console and an even heavier burden on a school district counseling team still reeling from the shocking death the previous weekend of Mesquite High student Jordan Edwards.
Counselors responded to John Horn High School, where Wayne was enrolled. He was the third student in the district of 40,000 killed by gunfire in the past six weeks.
And it's not just the students who were closest to Wayne who drew the counselors' attention. Guilt could be on the mind of someone who had known him for years, but for some reason, didn't talk to him anymore. Or someone who may have had a chance for daily interaction with him, but avoided it for whatever reason.
The Horn High staff has questions, too. What could any of them have possibly done differently? Officials say there will ultimately be many victims of the ill-fated plot to rob a pizza delivery man that claimed Wayne's life.
Balch Springs, which has attracted nationwide scrutiny after police Officer Roy Oliver shot Jordan and was charged with his murder, is also served by Mesquite ISD.
"All the stuff that's happening in the world and all the chatter, now it's ours," said Kem Edwards, the district's director of counseling. "It's part of our national landscape and now here it is in Mesquite."
By the counseling staff's definition, the call to respond at Horn High School was the 12th crisis-level response of the Mesquite ISD school year, which began in August. All have been related to the death of a student or staff member.
"There's a certain amount of caretaker exhaustion that's going to come from this," Edwards said.
Jordan's killing placed an unprecedented burden on students, staff and caretakers, district officials said. On a Sunday, the day after the 15-year-old was killed, MISD counselors gathered to put a plan in motion.
That Monday, 40 counselors were on the Mesquite High campus — turning the library and auditorium into areas where students could come and go and talk to professionals. Scheduled testing was delayed.
"We had a lot of crying kids and a lot of devastated kids," Kem Edwards said. "Counselors embracing kids and kids hanging on to counselors they'd never met before that day. And backing off and letting kids cluster together. Sometimes, kids just need to hug each other.
"On that day, we did our best. It speaks well of Mesquite High. I can't say enough about the thoughtfulness and consideration and love that has poured forth from that campus."
Much of the counselors' work that day was channeled through Chelsea Alvarado, a member of the Mesquite High staff who specializes in intervention counseling. This is the first school year that an intervention specialist is on all five MISD high school campuses.
"It's one intervention counselor and 2,900 students," Alvarado said. "But there's so much more to it because there's a system. It has been overwhelming how staff and students have come together at this time. They've loved on each other, supported each other, embraced and cried together."
School itself proved therapeutic. Absences didn't markedly spike at Mesquite High immediately after Jordan's death. Students needed to be there, to see and talk with their friends.
But the hurt will still be there in a month, when school is out and that built-in daily support group goes away. The district is working to figure out how to extend its reach throughout the summer, particularly for approximately 30 students whom the counseling staff has identified as being "extremely impacted" by Jordan's death.
LightHouse for New Hope, a grief and loss center in Mesquite, is working with the district and offers many of its services free of charge. But the nonprofit can help only if a student or student's family follows through to set up counseling.
"Of those 30 kids, it's more likely that maybe three or four of them will come," said Nancy Bollman, president of LightHouse for New Hope. "We know for a fact there's a long-term effect. Six months, a year, two years from now, kids will be affected. And I'm sure with what happened with Jordan, that it'll be a lifetime for some of them."
The next session of group therapy at the center starts June 13.
Each high school will have a counselor work throughout the summer. The district also is working with agencies in the community to assemble resources in Mesquite for pastoral and grief counseling.
The counselors also took to social media to re-emphasize "Stay Here," a Mesquite ISD video rolled out in September, to reach out against teen suicide at a time when students' emotions are running rampant.
"Any meaningful connection with an adult lowers their risk by 50 percent," Kem Edwards said. "This message was important in September and important every day since and more important now than ever. We have kids who are very fragile right now. They've been through a lot."
North Mesquite High School has lost two students this school year. Daniel Pacheco, 18, was shot at a house party April 1. Joseph Huerta, 17, died in a car accident in October. All told, Edwards said, this by far has been the most tragic of her 20 years in MISD.
Self-care and group therapy between the counselors after a critical-level event are mandatory elements to battle caregiver fatigue.
"Our counselors are tired," she said in the days after Jordan's death. "It always affects us. But this time it's one of our babies. It's a sweet kid."
Alvarado says that with 2,900 kids, the intervention counselor relies on other staff members. She didn't know Jordan personally, she said, but spoke highly of the daily interaction Jordan and his peers in the football program have received from the coaches. With other students, Alvarado said, it could be a favorite teacher, librarian or any other staff member.
"We want to be here to support our students," Alvarado said. "We want them to see school as a place where they belong and feel safe and know people care about them."
Meanwhile, it's May. And that means testing time and graduation are at hand. Getting students to the finish line is always stressful, particularly in Balch Springs, where only 64 percent of the adult population has a high school diploma — well below the national average of 83.2 percent.
"The biggest part of our counselors' job is keeping kids on track to graduate, keeping kids safe and trying to counteract the incredible odds that some of these kids are up against," Kem Edwards said. "We truly, deeply care about our families and each other. That's who we are. These kids are important to us."
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com