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Increasingly, students lean on schools after crises

They say that every societal ill ends up at the schoolhouse door, and the past few months are no exception.

As students return from their winter vacation, many will receive counseling as they cope with violent events, often close to home.

Crisis intervention teams are at work in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"That wasn't always the case," said Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. But today, "the vast majority of mental health services delivered to children are delivered in schools."

Some schools have seen more trauma than others.

South Tampa's Robinson High School has suffered four sudden and stunning deaths in less than two years, with two violent losses in just the last two weeks. Former football standout Kwane Doster was shot and killed in Ybor City on Dec. 26, and 15-year-old junior varsity basketball player Johnathon Simmons was shot to death Dec. 28 at a block party in Bradenton.

"Robinson has been through a really horrible streak here," said Chuck Jaksec, a social worker at Robinson and district crisis team member. "I've never seen anything like it."

"The irony here is the statistics tell us violent crime is down," said Hillsborough County school psychologist Vito Ricciardi, a member of the district's crisis counseling team. "However, we're starting to lose people in the community we love to crime."

The deaths at Robinson follow two at Martinez Middle School, where two siblings were gunned down Dec. 10 by their father outside their Heritage Harbor home in Tampa. In October, an 8-year-old boy from Kenly Elementary School was mauled to death by two mixed-breed pit bullterriers.

In Pinellas County on Dec. 19, two former Largo High School students were involved in a road rage car accident. Fred Post, 22, was seriously injured and Jacquelyn Palfy, 20, was killed after another vehicle cut in front of their car, causing it to spin into a utility pole.

In October, Clearwater High School student Rebecca McKinney was hit and killed by a pickup as she tried to cross six-lane McMullen-Booth Road. A county school bus had dropped her there.

Many schools use psychologists, counselors and social workers to help children and teachers deal with the initial shock.

Crisis teams encourage children to talk and share their memories and then to direct them to some constructive activity like writing letters of condolence.

"We have learned through experience we can't minimize the emotional impact on the students and the staff and how it affects their ability to learn and work," said Linda Jones, who oversees Pinellas' crisis team.

Hillsborough has 30 members on its crisis team, formed in 1986 after a Chamberlain High School student was kidnapped and killed. Members go out to schools whenever tragedy strikes.

Such was the case in 2003 when Robinson High principal Kevin McCarthy, 39, died suddenly of a heart attack. It was the case again when the school's former class president, Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Aviles, was killed in Iraq.

"With the war and students dying from violent crime and car accidents, it seems we're getting called out once a week," Ricciardi said.

Jones said she believes school deaths have increased since the terrorist attacks in 2001. Her team goes out to a school about once a week.

Sometimes, death has a minor impact, especially when the child or teacher is not well known. Other times, it seems to envelop an entire campus.

On the last day of school last spring, students and teachers at Dunedin's San Jose Elementary School struggled with the death of 4-year-old Julian Gonzalez-Hargis, who collapsed on the school playground and later died. Not only were people in shock over the death, but police were on hand investigating and media were also reporting about it.

"We had staff and children alike who were in crisis," Jones said.

In Hillsborough, more than 200 Martinez Middle School students sought counseling after Robert O'Mara shot his estranged wife, Patricia Parra-Perez, and the couple's children, 12-year-old Sean and 13-year-old Lauren.

"This past year has been particularly gruesome with the hurricanes, terrorist attacks and earthquake tsunamis in Asia and Africa," said Marsha Alcorn, chairwoman of Hillsborough's crisis team.

"With things that happen in the world, there are always repercussions in the school. Kids are being exposed to a lot."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melaniesptimes.com.

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