Summer vacation may not be over, but Mainland Regional High School quickly became a focal point for student and community grief over the accident Saturday that killed four football players and injured four others.
That’s a good thing, said Jim Lukach, executive director of the New Jersey School Counselors Association.
“Because it is a familiar place for the students, it is a good place to gather,” he said. “School counselors know the students, are trained mental health professionals, and this is part of their responsibilities.”
Schools in New Jersey are required to have crisis management plans that respond to incidents both in and outside of school. Lukach praised Mainland officials for quickly organizing counseling sessions at the Linwood school Sunday, but said the aftermath of the tragedy will linger through the school year. He said with so many families and towns affected, school officials should consider outside help.
“They need to keep an open-door policy,” he said. “This is going to affect a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”
Each county has a team of crisis management professionals ready to assist as part of a state-funded Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth Program. The Atlantic County team is coordinated through the Southern Regional Institute at Richard Stockton College.
Counselors from the AtlantiCare Behavioral Health Child and Adolescent Services Program and chaplains from the AtlantiCare Hospice grief team were available at Mainland Regional on Sunday, spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta said.
Lisa Athan, of Springfield, Union County, a counselor and executive director of Grief Speaks, said outside personnel are helpful because school staff are also affected by the tragedy.
“You want the local people there because they know the students,” she said. “But the staff is also emotional. The coalition team can help everyone remain calm. They’re sad, but not to the same degree.”
She said school officials should reach out to anyone in the community with whom students feel comfortable talking. They might also consider a workshop for parents. She recommended the book “When a Friend Dies” by Marilyn Gootman as helpful for teens.
Lukach said the aftermath of the tragedy will remain throughout the school year, from football games to graduation. Ongoing issues include the police investigation of the accident, the recovery and return to school of survivors, and possible implications for school policy on students driving to school.
“Initially, students want someone to talk to, and they’re getting that,” Lukach said. “But this won’t end in a few days or weeks. There will be new emotions throughout the school year.”
Athan said the school may be the focal point for the grief, but it won’t end at the school. As classes begin in September, school officials must strike a balance that maintains the necessary routine while still acknowledging and even learning from the tragedy in a positive way through communitywide projects or programs.
“Life does move on, and kids need that routine to help them move forward, too” she said. “This really is about taking care of the entire community.”
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