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When Reagan High School student Alonso Jones died by suicide on his campus a little more than two weeks ago, the school’s community grappled with the tragedy as administrators searched for the appropriate response.
Jones’ classmates started a GoFundMe campaign to help support the Jones family and remembered their friend as one of the “most pure and innocent students” who brought happiness and laughter to all who knew him.
Students erected tributes on campus that were later taken down, leading some to claim school leaders were banning students from remembering their classmate. Superintendent Sean Maika addressed the allegations in a letter to the school community a week-and-a-half ago.
“This is not because anyone is cold or callous about what happened. In fact, it is the opposite,” Maika wrote. “We want to do everything we can to help students get through this difficult time, but finding a balance between allowing students to show support or honor the deceased, while protecting those students who are currently in crisis themselves is challenging.”
In Maika’s letter to the Reagan community, he cited research related to “suicide contagion,” or copycat deaths that reference the initial tragedy.
NEISD Spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor told the Rivard Report the district wants to give students an appropriate way to honor a classmate’s life, but also pay attention to the impact such tributes could have on the collective student body.
After Jones’ death, students began wearing red ribbons to remember him. Chancellor said the school supported this tribute.
“Every student needs to be able to express their grief in their own way and as long as it is not infringing or affecting the other students, we are going to honor that most of the time,” Chancellor said.
Minding both the needs of individual students in crisis and the entire student body’s mental wellness is a delicate balance following a student’s death, said Tami Logsdon, director of programs at the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas.
There’s no easy answer or exact timeline for treating grief, but schools can follow best practices to help students move forward. One of those best practices is bringing in community organizations to pool resources, she said.
Following Jones’ death at Reagan, NEISD leaders gathered community organizations, including the Children’s Bereavement Center. Together, the organizations and district offered resources for parents to learn how best to continue the conversation about grief at home, support throughout the semester for staff members, and additional counseling staff to meet student needs.
NEISD dispatched Student Teacher Assistance Network, or STAN, counselors, specifically tasked with addressing students in crisis, to Reagan. Those counselors will remain on campus as long as they are needed, Chancellor said.
“School counseling staff is going to receive a record number of kids showing up, far more than the ones they are used to have showing up,” Logsdon said. “You can expect those numbers to double for a period of time.”
NEISD’s counselors were tasked with reviewing Jones’ schedule to identify any students who might be in need of extra support. Counselors addressed these classes to make students aware of resources available.
Logsdon cautioned that students’ emotional response to a tragedy might not take the form of sadness. It can look different depending on the student and can take the form of frustration, anger, or stress.
It’s more likely that students will lean on teachers and staff they already have a relationship with than on counselors who are temporarily on campus. That’s why it is also important to support staff members who will feel the “accumulated toll” of the tragedy, Logsdon said.
She emphasized that while such a tragedy can bring immense grief to a campus, schools have a unique social emotional learning opportunity. Districts can use the time to talk about the importance of tending to your own mental well-being and asking for help when it is needed.
“Talking about suicide does not encourage suicide and there are lots of places, people, and research speaking toward that,” Logsdon said. “Talking about suicide in some instances is a really great situation to allow students to talk about what they need to do to monitor theirs and their friends’ mental wellness.”
“We do need to talk about it so we can educate kids and empower them to reach out for their own care.”