TULALIP — For the second week in a row, counselors are converging on Quil Ceda Elementary School to help kids cope with death.
On Nov. 17, teachers and counselors told students that first-grader Stormy Peters had died the day before. Her father shot her while cleaning a gun, court documents allege.
On Monday, a week later, teachers stood in front of their students and told them that fifth-grader Tyler Emory died in a house fire in Arlington shortly before midnight Friday.
School administrators learned of his death just before it was announced at a press conference Monday afternoon. Within the hour, teachers were sharing the news with their students.
“We pretty much were depleted as of last week with Stormy’s funeral,” principal David McKellar said. “We figured by Friday afternoon we were all ready to go home and relax for the weekend and stay with family and all that stuff you do to cope. It’s a little surreal to be in this now finding out we had another one of our students who died tragically. We don’t know how we’re coping right now.”
It’s unusual for a school to lose two students in accidents in a year, let alone a week, said Melissa Porter, a former school counselor who is now a support coordinator at Bridges, a child grief center in Tacoma.
Porter believes the recent deaths involving Quil Ceda students will affect the entire school, even kids who didn’t know Stormy or 10-year-old Tyler personally. The deaths may trigger children’s memories of other traumatic events they’ve experienced. Some students will fear dying and need reassurances that they’re safe, some may become physically ill and some may act out in class, Porter said.
“It’s devastating to lose a child, let alone two in one year,” she said. “It’s a traumatic blow for everybody. It reminds us how fragile life is. Beginnings and endings are happening all the time.”
During the 2006-07 school year two Quil Ceda students died as the result of illness. Now, a crisis team of counselors from other Marysville schools is meeting with grieving students and staff. This is the team’s second straight week at Quil Ceda.
The school on the Tulalip Indian Reservation houses two different programs, a neighborhood school Stormy attended, and a parent-teacher co-op Tyler had been enrolled at until a week before his death.
Roughly 225 students attend the co-op and 350 kids attend the neighborhood school.
Tyler’s previous foster family enrolled him in the co-op in September. He left the school in November when he moved to Arlington with a different foster family, McKellar said.
The boy died when his home erupted in flames. Another foster child, Kyler Grant Williams, 11, also died in the fire.
The boys’ foster parents, Mark and Susan Lee, plus four children and two other adults escaped the blaze.
Tyler was a well-liked, bubbly boy who loved swimming, recalled Michele Sawyer, whose son, Mitchell, sat beside Tyler in class.
Like all co-op parents, Sawyer spent a lot of time in the classroom and was touched by Tyler’s story.
“Despite everything, that kid always had a good attitude and was just so polite,” she said. “No matter what card that little boy was dealt he was an awesome little boy.”
Tyler always addressed the parent volunteers as “Missus” or “Mister,” she said. When the class took a field trip to a swimming pool, Tyler outswam his classmates. And he soaked up the thrill of an overnight camping trip at the beginning of the school year.
“He loved it,” Sawyer remembered. “He and my son were out skipping rocks in the river. It was magical.”
When counselors broke the news of Tyler’s death to his classmates, many kids broke down in tears, McKellar said.
Sawyer said the way Tyler died weighed heavily on her son and other children.
Teachers and other staff are struggling with their own emotions, while helping kids with theirs, McKellar said.
“It’s not anything anyone ever trains or prepares for,” he said. “You don’t expect children to proceed you in death and it’s very hard.”
Last week a counselor from Seattle spent the day working with teachers and other staff affected by Stormy’s death. Twenty staff members attended the little girl’s funeral.
“We’re just trying to comfort each other and strengthen each other and get through this week and have a little extended break — and hopefully never have to do this again,” McKellar said
Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.