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School hit hard by girl's suicide

A special team of counselors spent much of Wednesday helping pupils at Dania Elementary School make sense of the death of a 6-year-old girl who stood in front of a train after telling friends she wanted to die.

Fourth-grader Josh Coe says he understands why Jackie Johnson might want to die because her mother was terminally ill.

"If my mother was ill, I'd do the same thing," said Josh, 11, who attends the same school Jackie attended in this tight-knit community between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

One day after Jackie's death, students and school officials at Dania Elementary School struggled to cope. County officials said the kindergartener's death was a suicide.

What troubled the little girl is still something of a mystery.

School officials say her mother, Carla Johnson, is terminally ill. Officials with the Broward County Medical Examiner's office say they are trying to confirm news reports that the mother has AIDS.

"We're not sure of that," said Richard Rodriguez, an investigator with the medical examiner's office.

Gloria Wright, the cousin of Jackie's mother, said Wednesday she could not comment on the accident and quickly closed the door at the home where Jackie had been living.

Jackie reportedly fought off siblings and a cousin to stay on the tracks, because she "wanted to be with the angels."

She was the youngest suicide in 12 years in Broward County, the county medical examiner said.

"It could truly be an accident," said Dania Elementary School Principal Carole Stanier, fighting back tears. "I don't think she thought out all the consequences of it."

A crisis intervention team of six counselors were at the school Tuesday and Wednesday to talk to students about the death.

"We are de-emphasizing the suicide part so that children don't think they can get attention by doing this," Stanier said. "I was a little bit concerned with the "wanting to be with the angels' part because somebody might want to be an angel, too."

School psychologist Jan Lowenthal said pupils appeared to be handling the tragedy well.

"There's maybe a question or two, and they're a little quieter than usual," she said.

Stanier said Jackie showed no signs of being distraught, but it often is hard for teachers to tell with younger children.

"With older students you can see declines in grades. They are able to vocalize," she said. "With younger students, you have to look for tiny signs for changes in behavior."

Some parents picking up children from school said Jackie should not have had to cross the tracks to get to school because Bethune Elementary School is in their neighborhood.

"I live a block from Bethune," said Helen Ceasar, who was walking her daughter Sheena, 7, home from school. "I don't think it's fair."

Ceasar than hurried to the tracks with her daughter, hoping to beat patrols by Broward County sheriff deputies to keep people from crossing the tracks except at intersections.

Ceasar said the intersections were out of the way.

"Adults walk these tracks. What are kids supposed to think?" she said.

Broward County schools spokeswoman Merrie Meyers said students cross the tracks to Dania Elementary because of a court-ordered desegregation settlement and bus service is not allowed within a 2-mile boundary of the school.

"There are students throughout Florida who cross railroad tracks in order to attend schools," said Meyers, adding the crossing is not considered dangerous because of the nearby intersections.