"Grief is very complex. It sounds like it's a simple word, but it's not," said grief counselor Janet Will last night at a countywide forum set up by students worried that Howard school resources are inadequate for teen-agers wrestling with grief.
The complexities of grief and the challenges faced by students trying to cope with the loss of classmates were passionately discussed at the conference held at Wilde Lake High School.
A group of seven Howard teen panelists was joined by other teens from the Maryland State Youth and College Division of the NAACP, Vision Howard County and the Teen Community Forum to explore how grief might be better managed in some Howard high schools.
The students complained that several recent deaths were practically ignored in their schools. They were also concerned that information on school resources available for students troubled by tragedy is not adequately publicized and said that even when students are aware of faculty resources, they have problems getting permission to access them.
"Many students feel the way grief is being handled is not good enough," River Hill freshman Jiang Wei Zhu said.
"In some cases the administration didn't even put out a notice [when a student died]," said Hammond High senior Erica McLaughlin, the forum's main coordinator, who has lost two friends this school year.
School board member and panelist Laura Waters suggested that the troubled students speak with the school system's crisis intervention team when hit by a traumatic event. Will agreed, saying, "I do know the education that goes into the training of the folks on that team is quite outstanding."
"But I wasn't even aware that there was a crisis intervention team and that there was anyone at all to talk to besides the school counselor and, frankly, I think of them as someone who fixes your class schedule," Mount Hebron freshman Valerie Whitacre said.
Other students agreed that Howard schools didn't do a good enough job explaining the availability of grief counseling services or showing empathy for students trying to deal with grief.
"Some think school is just for learning and they try to keep it [grief] on a low profile as to not disturb the learning," said Zhu, "But there is a fine line between learning and not being able to concentrate on learning."
"A lot of the students felt rushed, they felt like they didn't have time to grieve," River Hill junior Jingya Wang added.
"I think it's an issue -- it's an issue for teachers too," Waters said. "Grief doesn't end within a certain period of time, it just doesn't work that way," said the school board member, who lost her son 12 years ago.
The intricate connections among students at different high schools have also been overlooked, the students complained.
The guidance department [at Hammond] had no idea that a death at Long Reach High School had any effect on students at a neighboring school, McLaughlin said.
"The situation was handled poorly and the department was unprepared," McLaughlin said.
However, one audience member, who is on staff at Hammond, said students who came to seek help at the guidance department were pleased. But the staffer said, "We need to help educate students that, yes, we are there and are available."
Asked to explain the forum's purpose in a sentence, Zhu said: "We want the whole county to know how kids are feeling."
Community members, organizations, middle-school pupils, high-school students and faculty attended. Other panel members included Police Chief Wayne Livesay and School administrator and parent Gina Massella.
Massella, assistant principal at Liberty High School in Sykesville, wanted to participate in the discussion as a parent of a Glenelg High School student who died nearly three years ago. She said it is just as important for schools to be mindful of grieving parents and family members.
"The school did nothing, nothing for him or his friends," said Massella. "I still keep in contact with them, and they still have a lot of anger and resentment about how they were treated, so my experience has not been positive."
Wang said, "We want to find strategies so that we can better deal with grief in the future."
"Some schools have done a good job with death and grief and others haven't, we are trying to get all of the schools on the same level," McLaughlin said.
Carolyn Whitacre, and a Baltimore County teacher and mother of teen panelist Valerie said: "I am not holding the schools totally responsible for everything. Look at this auditorium. Where is the community? When something goes wrong, the first question the community will ask is 'Where are the schools?'"
Chief Livesay said that every Howard County school has a crisis plan created by the school board and the Police Department. There is also one police officer assigned to each area high school, not only for protection, but to build trustful relationships between students and police.
"I am here because we want schools to be a safe place where students can learn," said Livesay. "We play an important role in the prevention of tragedies in the schools and in the community."
McLaughlin said: "I hope students are better informed of what's already in place and are able to make use of what's there. Resources are not highly publicized. We want to fix what's already broken."