Five Minutes With: Copley-Fairlawn Schools Officials Talk about Grief and Loss
In wake of Copley Shootings, High School Principal Cameron Ryba and staff talk about tragedy, teenagers and how to spot signs of potential trouble.
Last Sunday (Aug. 7) seven victims were shot to death in a spree that left the tight-knit community of Copley Township shocked and grieving. Among the dead were three children, an 11-year-old from Kentucky and two Copley High School students, 16-year-old friends Autumn Johnson and Amelia Shambaugh.
Copley teachers and administrators opened their doors to students and the grieving community early last week (classes officially begin Aug. 25). In the following discussion, Copley High Principal Cameron Ryba, guidance counselors Toni Ehrman, Jenny Morganti, Corinne Magensky and school district psychologist Larry Watson talk about about grief and what signs might signal potential trouble as students deal with the loss of their classmates.
The Copley-Fairlawn School District has compiled a list of counseling resources for those who need help. Call 330-664-4827 for more information.
Fairlawn-Bath Patch: What is the school's role when someone dies?
Principal Cameron Ryba: I think our role as a school, especially in a community such as Copley-Fairlawn where there is such a connection between the school and community is to support, not just our kids in the district, but also to be a support for the parents and our community as a whole. I've been doing a lot of work to coordinate people who want to help, and we also have been making sure those who want help know where to find it.
Patch: You decided to open the school to a student-run memorial, even though classes don't begin for another week. What went into that decision?
Ryba: Kids process and work through these issues together. So it was never really a question of would we or would we not open the school. We felt it was necessary to allow them to have that safe space and time to express how they feel together. So many kids had spoken to me on that night and said, “I wish school was in session.” So to be able to give them that structure and security and camaraderie for at least two hours was important.
Patch: What are the main issues of concern for students when a classmate dies?
Corinne Magensky: A lot of times it will bring to mind other tragedies. Kids will say, “This happened to my aunt, or this happened to my uncle." It brings back the past, so they are dealing with this (current) thing and with that too.
Jenny Morganti: Or if they weren’t directly associated with this, there’s a fear that it could happen to them or they could lose someone close.
Magensky: That’s normal for children or adults, I think. The lack of control is scary.
Patch: How young is too young to talk about the murders with kids who have some of the information from television or who have been talking to older friends or siblings?
Larry Watson: I would say it’s never too young. The most important thing is to be available and to listen. If they ask questions you answer them factually, at their age level. Younger ones you don’t get into too much detail. Older ones, if they ask, you tell them like it is.
Patch: If I'm a parent or a friend, how would you tell me to help? And what signs do I look out for?
Toni Ehrman: Someone who is preoccupied with the deceased, or with the events, obsessive thoughts of the deceased, lots of crying. The classic signs of depression.
Magensky: Grades slipping; not sleeping.
Watson: Change of diet; change of normal group of friends or not being with friends.
Morganti: Parents who already are seeing those kinds of behavior are calling us, which is really a good thing since school hasn't started yet. Parents and friends are watching out for the kids.
Patch: I've been thinking about the grieving process. How do you help these kids grieve, feel what they are feeling and then move on?
Watson: I think we do it two ways. We get the routine of things back to normal as soon as possible. Second, these counselors will keep watch on kids that maybe aren’t moving forward as quickly as some of the other kids. We were proactive in calling some of the kids we knew were close to the situation to start following up with them. Recognize what happened but don’t dwell on it. Keep moving. Keep the schedule going. Here’s this new school year... but keep an eye out for kids that may need more time.
Patch: Have kids expressed any concern for their safety, and have you planned for that when school starts again?
Ryba: We’ve thought a lot about that and how we can address it, and we're still making plans. I think kids naturally feel that our high school and our buildings are a safe, secure places for them to be. From my standpoint it’s more of a reassurance of that, that they have support and that the safety they have is real. We want them to know that they can start getting back to being kids again. We’re at a high school, and, yes, the kids are older but they are still kids. A sense of normalcy will slowly return and the fun of high school life will slowly return. We want to let them know that it’s OK to get back into that aspect of their lives.
Patch: You all have had contact with Autumn and Amelia, and some of you were very close to the girls. What are you doing to take care of yourselves?
Ryba: I think that's an important part. One of my messages to the staff is that we’re so focused on taking care of the kids we need to remember to take care of each other. Our adults need to seek out those resources they feel comfortable with, whether that’s someone in the building, a spouse, a counselor or a pastor. I've worked closely with different staff members who were close to the situation to make sure that was happening. In our own school, our adults come to our counselors. I do the same thing. We go to the people we trust inside and outside the building.
Ehrman: We all know each other. We check on the safety forces, too, and they check on us. There’s a good support system here of people who have been around a while.