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Helmut Schmidt, Published January 24 2013

West Fargo students 'bruised' but 'unbroken' by 5 deaths

By Helmut Schmidt

hschmidt@forumcomm.com

WEST FARGO – The deaths of five West Fargo High School students in a little more than a month is “a heavy blow” to students and staff alike, Superintendent David Flowers said at a news conference Thursday.

“They’ve been bruised by each of these losses, but they remain unbroken,” Flowers said.

The school’s administrators and counselors have borne the brunt of the emotional stresses that have sprung from the deaths, Flowers said.

“They will say they were simply doing their jobs, but I will say they’re heroes,” he said.

Special attention is being paid to those who are struggling with grief to be sure they don’t begin to feel overwhelmed, and perhaps consider suicide, he said.

“Yes, we worry about that, that the students who are struggling will struggle more when these kinds of things happen,” Flowers said.

He said the staff is counting on the school’s 1,500 students and their parents to be part of “a system of vigilance” and point out students who need help coping with their grief.

The causes or circumstances of the students’ deaths were not discussed at the news conference. Flowers said district officials are not authorized to comment.

The awkwardness of the situation is compounded by increased use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, by students and adults, he said.

“The frustration for the school district is we can’t have a Facebook re-sponse,” Flowers said, even if bad information or untruths are being spread.

The most recent loss was the death Monday of 17-year-old Ryan McLeod, who a district official said suffered from ongoing health issues.

Earlier this month, junior Makenzie Walkin, 17, died. The cause of her death was not released.

In early December, three students died in a matter of days.

Sophomore Tessa Miller died Dec. 5. The cause of her death was not released.

On Dec. 7, senior Levi Schulz and junior Ian Alves died. Schulz died of injuries he suffered after being struck by a vehicle on Sheyenne Street just south of Interstate 94.

Alves died after an 18-month battle with two aggressive forms of cancer.

Students and staff are in the initial stages of recovery, getting counseling or referrals for help, said high school Assistant Principal Dan Holder.

Holder said an important part of the healing process is an emphasis on stronger student and staff relationships.

Julie Hersch, chairwoman of the high school’s counseling department, said the vigils held and Facebook memorial pages created by students for their classmates “can be very helpful” to help students through their grief.

“Certainly no one was ready for it,” she said, but “the students have some amazing supportive skills.”

Flowers also praised the community’s response.

“We’ve always known the school district is strongly supported by our community, and that knowledge was confirmed 100 times over as individuals and businesses and our neighboring school districts from across the community stepped up to offer support each time,” he said.

“It is said that great schools can make a great community, but we say here the reverse is also true,” he said. “Great communities breed great schools, and that’s certainly the case here.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583