ZEPHYRHILLS — The parking lot at Zephyrhills High School was less crowded than usual on Thursday afternoon, as concerns swirled that a student there had been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
The news came at the same time students learned a female schoolmate had died earlier in the week.
Neither school district nor county health department officials would link the two cases. But many students at Zephyrhills High did so in their minds.
They buzzed about the news as they left campus at the end of classes on Thursday.
"A lot of people are upset," sophomore Austin Clark said. "They've got the crisis people here. Everybody is real nervous that there is stuff going around."
The school district sent counselors to the high school to support students and staff members who knew the girl who died. District officials would not release her name, citing privacy laws and the parents' desire to keep the information to themselves.
A spokeswoman for the health department said investigators were working with the school to determine if any other students had been exposed to meningitis, which can be highly contagious, but only through "very close" person-to-person contact.
"We're not aware of any other additional cases," department spokeswoman Deanna Krautner said.
In fact, such cases are extremely rare: Pasco had no reported cases of meningitis last year, and only one case in each of the two previous years.
Still, rumors persisted in the school that illness was in the air. That was despite numerous reminders from principal Steve Van Gorden and other teachers that everything was fine and students should not freak out.
"People think they're going to die or catch it," said freshman Brandy Colbert.
The shock that a person they knew — whom they described as a sophomore who was "sweet" and "fun" — could be dead also permeated the mood.
Some people still were reeling from the motorcycle crash death of friend Corey Gillette, 19, whose viewing was later in the evening. Others invoked the recent deaths of students at Mitchell and Sunlake high schools, as well.
"I'm thinking, who's next?" said Tyler Conner, a 19-year-old former Zephyrhills High student who was walking past the campus with friends. "It seems like every week."
District officials have sent letters to parents of Zephyrhills High students alerting them to the facts about bacterial meningitis, a disease of the brain and spinal cord. Students at New River Elementary School also received the note, because the student's sibling attends there.
Health department and school district officials said no further information was available. They said they would make an announcement if more details can be released.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.