School grief counselors bring 'calming presence' amid tragedy

Upper Darby High School guidance counselor Latisha Mejias with student Scott Rucci, 17. Rucci at first didn't want to talk about the death of a friend in a traffic accident, but his mother saw that he was grieving.
Upper Darby High School guidance counselor Latisha Mejias with student Scott Rucci, 17. Rucci at first didn't want to talk about the death of a friend in a traffic accident, but his mother saw that he was grieving.
Posted: March 11, 2014

Scott Rucci was at the movies when he got word that his friend Dante DeSimone had been killed in an accident.

When, the next morning, Rucci and many of his fellow Upper Darby High School classmates were summoned one by one to counselors' offices, he dreaded having to talk about the accident.

But the counselor didn't push Rucci to talk about his feelings of loss and fear. She simply said, "If you want to talk, I'm here."

"It wasn't what I expected," Rucci, 17, said. "But it really helped."

Knowing what those touched by tragedies need to hear - even if it is just that help is available - is a key element in how grief counselors do their jobs. And with at least a half-dozen deaths touching school communities in Philadelphia and its suburbs in recent months, they have been busy.

"We have a plan that is specific enough to be effective but general enough to allow for differences in the aspects from crisis to crisis," said Christopher Pugliese, director of pupil services in the Upper Darby School District.

DeSimone, an 18-year-old freshman at Neumann University and an Upper Darby graduate, was killed Jan. 12 when a car pushed a pickup truck onto a sidewalk where he was standing. High school student Tim Robison, 18, was seriously injured.

Earlier that day, Timothy Rooney, father of two Radnor Township School District students, fatally shot his wife, Linda, before killing himself, according to police.

The next week, on Jan. 17, Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania student, jumped to her death from a parking garage. Another Penn student, Elvis Hatcher, hanged himself weeks later. At least four Penn students have died this semester. The university said it would hire more counselors.

Anthony Morelli, a counselor at Peter's Place, a nonprofit in Radnor that helps children and families deal with grief, has supported the Radnor and Tredyffrin/Easttown School Districts when they needed reinforcements for students and faculty after tragedies struck.

"In these situations, emotions are running very high. What we bring is a calming presence," said Morelli, director of off-site programs. He said Peter's Place counselors were called two to five times per year to schools to bring that calming presence.

"I wish I never had to do that," he said, "but, unfortunately, it happens."

The U.S. Department of Education directs schools to plan for events such as natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and the deaths of students or staff. Many schools use crisis-training courses from the National Association of School Psychologists, said Julia Szarko, president of the organization's Pennsylvania chapter.

In her 17 years as a school psychologist, Szarko said, she has had to help schools through suicides, car accidents, and the time a father killed his two young daughters and himself before school.

Schools use some common strategies in the aftermath of tragedy, such as creating scripts for staff to use to convey accurate information to students, setting aside a "safe room" where students and staff can go for support, and targeting students who could be most affected.

They also have to watch for students who might not have known the victims well but who are reminded of past losses in their own lives that could trigger grief. Schools tell parents about what happened so they can watch for signs their children may need help.

In the days after the accident, Rucci, whom his mother calls a "human Hoover," had little appetite. The ordinarily sociable teen didn't talk much and didn't want to be around people. He showed little enthusiasm for anything. He slept more. He fooled around on his phone during class instead of paying attention.

"I was just going through the motions," Rucci said.

Those were symptoms of grieving.

Eventually, Rucci returned to meet with the counselors and spent time in the safe room. His mother, Marian, said he was doing better now.

But long after school counselors are faced with the newest crisis, she knows her son will still be dealing with his friend's death.

"These losses aren't just as long as they're in the news," she said. "These losses are forever."



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