Tempe crisis team addresses students' needs - East Valley Tribune: News

Tempe crisis team addresses students' needs

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Posted: Saturday, May 3, 2008 10:41 pm | Updated: 10:33 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

When 14-year-old Jeremy Barragan was killed in his home on the night of Feb. 13, an immediate flurry of media coverage unveiled the unusual circumstances of his death.

Mom made 'admission statements' in son's slaying

While he was sleeping, his mother, Cynthia Hernandez, 45, laid a bathroom towel over the boy's face, aimed a rifle at his head and tried to shoot, according to police reports.

The gun was not loaded, so Hernandez went to find a bullet and came back, police said. She then aimed at a spot just above the boy's left eye and shot him at close range. She is charged with her son's killing and awaits trial.

As family and police faced the aftermath of a killing in which the mother, according to court records, may have been delusional, another group in Tempe was presented with its own challenge: how to help Barragan's classmates and friends.

Barragan was a student at McKemy Middle School in the Tempe Elementary School District. He had been a student at the school for less than a year, but had made a lot of friends, according to those who knew him.

As soon as the district learned of his death, it called upon its critical incident stress management team to determine what to tell his classmates and teachers and how to deal with their responses.

The team is a group of counselors and psychologists who are convened specifically to help students and teachers cope with traumatic events.

Different from long-term grief counseling, this group deals with the array of immediate reactions people may have to death. Several East Valley school districts have similar teams to deal with such situations.

Team members are trained through a national response agency and have been recognized by local law enforcement for their excellence, according to Paul Novak, who oversees the school district's transportation and safety.

This year, the Tempe team responded six times to deaths of children or staff within the district, a number district officials say is higher than usual. Last year, it responded four times and the year before, it did not deal with any deaths. Typically, the deaths are from shootings or automobile crashes, counselor Maria Hornyan said.

Hornyan is one of the pioneer members of the group and was recently named Arizona's counselor of the year. Counselors in the Tempe Elementary district have won the award for four straight years.

Hornyan said team members must be ready any time, night or day, weekend or holiday, to come together and quickly develop a plan for an affected school.

She said that while people may not even know the person who has died, they can have an emotional reaction to what is happening.

"We bring our emotions with us, no matter where we go," she said. "Maybe they recently had a loss, or maybe they experienced a loss a long time ago, maybe they have an unstable home environment and they are feeling upset by the incident, or they see others who are upset.

"We talk with them and validate that all the feelings they are having are normal in an abnormal situation."

The goal of the team is to address these emotional and psychological issues so that students can get back to learning as soon as possible.

Traci Williams, a school psychologist at McKemy Middle School, is a member of the team who experienced what is was like to be on the receiving end of the counseling this year when Barragan died.

"That experience was pretty hard. I did know the student who died," she said.

Usually, she is with a teacher when he or she reads what the team calls the "statement of facts" developed by the district so that every student knows what happened.

"I had planned on helping, but as we were getting ready I realized that I was very affected. I know my own limitations."

Many times, when they arrive at a school, the stress team members are meeting the students and staff for the first time.

Williams said she always feels honored that they are trusting and want to share with her.

"It's unfortunate circumstances that bring us together, but this is an excellent team of people that I am working with. We bring different skills, such as languages, to the table. Some of us have stronger comfort with different things, such as working with younger children or older children."

At the end of the day, the team typically meets again, this time to talk about themselves.

"We come together to talk about how the day went and how we're doing," Williams said. "We make sure to take care of ourselves, by touching base when everything is over."

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