Is one life more precious than another?
That’s the question Consie Taylor wants the Woodmore School Board to ponder after the death of her daughter, Alexis, age 16, a junior at the school.
Five months after her daughter’s accidental death from inhalant abuse, Taylor still struggles with her loss and the perceived indifference of the school system.
Taylor alleges school officials treated her daughter’s death differently than the previous deaths of two male students, one ruled accidental and one ruled suicide by the Sandusky County Coroner. Taylor struggled with going public, but she feels the school system diminished her daughter’s death. In a letter to The Press she stated, “I’m afraid the only message you (Woodmore) sent to the students, staff and community is that one life is not as precious as another. Tragedies should he handled the same way and with the same respect for every precious life. An actual crisis plan needs to be made and followed consistently.”
Taylor said assemblies were held to honor the boys who died, but no assembly was held for her daughter. In addition, students were given more counseling time for the boys’ deaths.
Keely Siesky, a Woodmore junior and Alexis’ friend, agreed. She said, “I don’t think it was really handled at all. They acknowledged it, but they didn’t do anything. The two previous deaths they had assemblies explaining what happened but with Alexis it was just a brief statement.”
Siesky said the assemblies helped students grieve. She also said the school provided a bus for those who wanted to attend the funeral, but because Alexis’s funeral was on a Saturday, the school should have provided a bus for students to travel together to visitation.
Rebekka Henck also said the school didn’t do enough. She too was upset there was no assembly. She added that group counseling provided by the school was helpful, but the duration was not as long as for the boys. After three hours, Rebekka said she was told she could go back to class or go home.
“I was shocked. It was like ‘We don’t want to deal with you and all this grieving that you’re going through so go home or get back to class.’ I was a little upset by it,” she said. “I thought it was handled very poorly. I just think you can’t shut kids out. We made the effort to come to school and keep a normal routine. Granted it’s not going to be the same as every other day but the least you can do is try to be a little supportive, if not sensitive.”
Ralph Myers, Woodmore principal, said the school system faces a difficult situation following a sudden death, one that requires coordination of many persons in a short time. In the Alexis Taylor case, Myers and other Woodmore officials were in Columbus for the Ohio School Boards Association’s annual meeting. When notified in the evening, most of the administrators drove back that night to prepare for what they would face in the morning.
Myers admits the Taylor death was treated differently. The policy calls for either a school-wide service and/or classroom counseling. He said the decision whether or not to hold an assembly was reconsidered after the death of the second student. Myers said that while assemblies can help honor the student, they can also create anxiety in other students. The California Association of School Psychologists cautions against large assemblies, particularly in the case of suicide. Teens are susceptible to “contagion,” these experts state. That is, they can entertain suicidal thoughts after falling under the spell caused by such attention as well as viewing memorials that place the deceased student in the position of a role model.
The crisis plan for the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin further cautions against the formation of a large group, particularly if students have experienced multiple previous losses. In Woodmore’s case, this was the third sudden death in three years.
In Alexis’ case, it was determined to make the announcement at the start of the day and bring in counselors for students who felt the need. Myers said three counselors and five clergy members were on site the morning after the death. One of the counselors was on loan from Genoa Area Schools.
Myers said, “I regret any feelings on the family’s part. I would just like to emphasize that as we gain more knowledge in this area and more information from experts on how to deal with situations like these we can’t just reject that advice for the simple reason that we’ve always done it that way and we can’t change.”
Most schools have crisis plans that have clear procedures for notifying students and providing counseling. Some bring in clergy, provide handouts and have a plan to deal with the “empty chair” and a student’s permanent absence. The Madison Metropolitan School District plan is a good one and can be viewed on-line. While that plan cautions against large assemblies, Dennis Mock, superintendent at Genoa Area Schools, said his school’s policy calls for one assembly for the student’s class and another for students of other classes. The school experienced a recent death when a student was killed while driving an ATV.
The question of how to handle a teen’s death is a complex one. So too is the approach to grieving. While most counselors encourage crying and talking about grief rather than suppressing it, others believe in the Cannon/Bard theory that states emotion is a by-product of action. They believe by taking the action of returning to your routine as soon as possible you will get over grief more quickly.
The Woodmore deaths were also the impetus for the formation of Two Villages, a group of citizens from Elmore and Woodville. Its mission is to offer community programs to help parents better understand teens and protect them.
Did Woodmore make mistakes in responding to this death?
Perhaps, but the art of dealing with grief is still evolving. Woodmore administrators now have an opportunity to talk with those who still feel Alexis was slighted. They should again weigh the need to honor a life with the responsibility they have for the safety of other students.
Consie Taylor is still grieving and the world still spins without her daughter. Any parent would be equally devastated. Her daughter’s death should not be diminished by how she died. Alexis was an honor student, a member of the French club and had played soccer as a sophomore. She was making plans for college where she wanted to study architecture and was looking forward to the upcoming Friday 13th to watch scary movies with her mom and friends. She was precious to many and still matters. Unfortunately, the mistake she made was fatal.