Schools, community, help students cope after recent tragedy

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:18

    SPARTA-When the phone rang in Richard Lio's home early one night last week, the Sparta police were on the other end. They usually would be when bad news involved Sparta High School and they need to speak to the Sparta principal right away. The Sparta police made the kind of call Lio never wanted to get on Nov. 30, informing him of the death of Matthew Cowell, a township 16-year-old who had died unexpectedly in his home that afternoon. "Oh my God," said Lio, after he hung up the phone. He remembered thinking about his kids, the Sparta High School kids, the classmates of Matthew Cowell, n those kids. And he remembered thinking about those kids some more, all along the drive from his home in Wayne to Sparta High School, where he had assembled his crisis management team of some 20 faculty and staff. Lio said Sparta, like most other schools, has a formal plan on file to respond to and cope with tragic events involving the school. "It's one of those plans you hope you never have to execute," he said. That night following the death, Lio and his team met into the early morning identifying various personnel and their responsibilities for the next day. "You try to come up with a rational plan for something irrational that happens," said Lio. "When we walked out of there, we had a solid plan in effect. But, it's one thing to have something on paper. It's another thing to put it into effect. " Following the established procedures, the faculty and staff were notified through the school's snow chain system that a tragedy involving a student had taken place and to be on hand for a mandatory meeting at 6 a.m. No one failed to attend, said Lio. From there, officials explained and disseminated the crisis plan. Teachers read an official statement during first period to students describing what had happened the day before. According to Lio, some students sought out the available counselors. In addition, key teachers walked the halls throughout the day to comfort those in need, including the adults most closely associated with the dead student. "You have to take care of the kids, but you have to take care of others, too," said Lio. "Their emotions can range from sadness to guilt." Sparta police also stationed two additional officers to compliment Officer Phil Brown, who is posted at the school each day. "As a community, when a tragedy like this occurs, it affects everyone," said Sgt. Russell Smith, who heads Sparta police community awareness efforts. "Our role is to counsel to a certain extent, but to also show that we're there. We care." In the days following the death, the crisis team met after school to debrief each other. "There was a lot of sharing of information," said Lio. "Communication was so critical." A support team was on hand at the funeral home to help mourners. Lio said the school has been in contact with the deceased student's family. "They have been phenomenal," he said. "They even called the school asking about how the kids were doing. I couldn't have handled it they way they have." Lio praised his teachers, staff and the entire Sparta community for their response, as well as all of Sussex County. "This community is outstanding," he said. "You can't imagine the support we've gotten." Lio said he is concerned about what toll the recent events have taken on his counselors. He plans to bring in support to provide them with solace and rest. And while Lio said some semblance of order is returning to school, he anticipates at least another three to four weeks of mourning, but can't predict to what degree. "If one kid is hurting, we all are," he said. "We're here for the kids. We're here for the staff. We're here for the community. We have to keep our finger on the pulse."