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Sunlake High in Pasco copes with second student death

LAND O'LAKES — The hallways were eerily silent at Sunlake High School on Wednesday.

So, too, were the cafeteria and the classrooms.

Students and faculty were overcome with grief by the school's second student death in just three weeks.

Alex Rodriguez, a popular senior football player, was found dead at his girlfriend's Lutz home early Wednesday morning. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is awaiting toxicology reports, but initial evidence pointed to a possible overdose, spokesman Kevin Doll said.

"We had a team meeting in second period and coach (Bill Browning) told us what happened and everyone started crying," said Sunlake quarterback Jacob Jackson, also a senior. "He was a great teammate and friend. Everyone couldn't believe that it happened and it's just a big shock right now. It really hasn't hit me yet."

"My fourth period class was just six kids," recounted teary-eyed senior Jaeda Fennel, who knew Alex since middle school. "Every single one of them was crying and just in shock. No one really knows what to do about it except to cry."

Alex's death came less than a month after the suicide of freshman Kiefer Allan, whom some friends and family members have said was bullied. Kiefer shot himself the night of Jan. 13 outside his Odessa apartment building.

"It's a sad day," sophomore John Maynor said Wednesday as he rode his bicycle home from school. "It was a tough day for everyone."

Having counselors available on campus to talk helped ease the burden, students said.

That's a critical component to helping a school heal after multiple blows, said Lizette Alexander, the Pasco school district's director of student services.

She dispatched a crisis team to Sunlake on Wednesday and planned to send them out again today.

"All these kids know each other," Alexander said. "The school community has been impacted. What we are trying to do is support the staff and students."

More than just offer a shoulder to cry on, she said, the counselors offer advice on how to avoid depression. That includes staying with others, keeping active and sharing thoughts.

"When they're alone and they're upset, that doesn't make a good situation," Alexander said.

While counseling plays a role, it still can be tough to shake the feeling that comes when young people die, Ridgewood High School principal Andy Frelick said.

Frelick was principal at Wesley Chapel High during a recent two-year period when the student body saw classmates die from car accidents, shootings and a plane crash.

"As a school, it is devastating," he said. "Kids are usually pretty resilient in the long term. But it's hard to get past it."

Each incident builds on the next, he said. Students begin to feel as if they're living under an unlucky star.

The adults at schools need to make sure they don't let students wallow in their grief, Frelick said. They should watch and listen for signs that a teen might need help.

"I think a lot of times kids feel like they can deal with everything themselves," he said.

Frelick said schools need open rapport with students, "where they feel like they can express their frustrations, teach them how to deal with their emotions."

Those emotions were raw on Wednesday at Sunlake.

Teens talked about Kiefer, 15, as a quiet, skinny kid who was friendly and nice. They remembered Alex as the kind of guy who would give a hug to a person he saw crying, just because he cared and wanted to offer some cheer and support.

"We grew up together and lived in the same neighborhood and played football and soccer together sometimes," Sunlake boys soccer player Jordan Landry said of Alex. "I was just overly shocked. I never would have expected this in a million years. He will be missed tremendously by everyone."

Alex's mother, Tammy Rodriguez, said she couldn't imagine her 18-year-old "baby boy" being gone, either.

"His dad is doing the reality thing," she said. "I can't."

Instead, she talked about his many friends, his infectious smile, the memories and stories piling up on Alex's Facebook page and through calls.

"The last thing he said to me, he kissed me on the cheek. I said, 'I love you.' He said, 'I love you more,' " Mrs. Rodriguez said. "That's what he would always say. ... He was just a great, great kid. What can you say?"

Times correspondent Andy Villamarzo contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

Sunlake High in Pasco copes with second student death 02/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 8:58pm]
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