D.C. Everest Area School District community struggles with recent deaths of students

Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 6:46 PM CST
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WESTON, Wis. (WSAW) - In less than a year, the D.C. Everest School District and community in Weston have mourned the loss of three students to suicide, two of whom died in the last two weeks.

“To say it’s a struggle right now... I’m not sure there are really words to describe that,” Jeff Lindell, director of student services expressed. “When you lose two members of your school community in such a short amount of time, everybody is hurting right now.”

He said the deaths are impacting students, staff, and community members, saying they are in crisis mode at the school trying to simply address the needs of their students and staff in this time.

“To see one die at such a young age is incredibly difficult for everybody involved and we know our extended community is hurting too.”

It is on top of a year that has been difficult for schools and students generally across the state. The district brought in more counselors to be there for students at the senior high, including utilizing some from the elementary schools.

“They have such a love and trust for their elementary counselors sometimes and to see that interaction happen and have that piece that somebody that they know is helping them has been beneficial,” Lindell said.

They also brought in an employee assistance program counselor on-site to help staff who need it during the day. The district also pulled more resources from the Marathon County School-Based Counseling Consortium beginning last week, like Carrie Paisar who already regularly visits the senior high every Monday.

“There’s a lot of shock and, you know, worry and anxiety with kids,” she said.

Paisar is a mental health and substance abuse therapist as part of North Central Health Care. She said there are a lot of emotions to navigate during grief and they are normal responses. Some of those responses may be behavioral, like isolating oneself or changes in eating or sleeping habits, and emotions can run from sadness to anger to numbness to guilt. She said it is important that people take time to process these emotions and the time varies for how long they may go on. In the district’s letter to families, it gave recommendations from its counselors about how to work through grief:

  • Acknowledge the loss and the emotional upset.
  • Be available. If you don’t know the right thing to say, just listen. Acknowledge that we don’t always have the answers to why these things happen.
  • When discussing grief, provide a reassuring environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings.
  • We encourage you to follow normal routines as much as possible.
  • Acknowledge there is no time limit on grieving.
  • Reassure those who are grieving of their own health and safety and make sure they know you are emotionally available to them.

Paisar urged it is important that parents keep open lines of communication with their kids, in normal circumstances, but especially in difficult times like this.

“Parents may say, ‘I don’t want to ask too many questions,’ but it’s important to be asking how your child is doing at this time and let them know, ‘I’m going to be checking in with you,’” Paisar explained.

She said keeping kids in their routines as much as possible is important, along with allowing them time to express their emotions in a healthy way, including doing things like exercising or listening to music. It is also OK to get help, she added, especially when the emotions and difficulties of the situation drag on to where it is impacting your ability to do your normal tasks or activities. All mental health services, like counseling sessions, are kept confidential.

A student-led petition with more than 1,300 signatures has criticized the district’s handling of mental health issues, noting the difficulties of the past year. In response, Lindell said he recognizes this time of high emotions for students that can be difficult to navigate at any age. He added that the district provides resources and that there are systems in place where natural next steps for improvement can happen, but urges there are a lot of pieces involved in solving these issues.

“It’s really about how do we as a community wrap our supports around our students and our children,” he said. “And so, certainly, the school plays a significant role in that; we see our students, sometimes, I think more than our parents see them, right? And so, we’re a natural part of that, but I also think where do our parents fit in in terms of partners and where does our community fit in as partners and where can we really start to have a community conversation that all of those parts come together as a team to better support our youth.”

The senior high has four counselors, which accounts for about 325 students per pupil. In addition, it has a social worker and a psychologist who do not act as counselors or are part of that per-pupil count but do handle some mental health-related issues. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1/250.

“We want our kids to realize that there are supports within our system and sometimes supports we can engage outside of our system too,” Lindell said. “But above anything, we want our kids to know that, that they’re loved.”

D.C. Everest students can schedule individual sessions with the district’s student services team here, or stop in during normal school hours.

Last month, NCHC sent out a youth mental health tool kit to Wausau and D.C. Everest families to help students and families manage their mental health themselves, how to help a friend, and what to do when they or a loved one is in need of more help. Click here to see those resources. NCHC’s 24/7 crisis line is (715) 845-4326. To text in for help, text “hopeline” to 741-741. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255).

The National Association of School Psychologists also has resources for families managing grief here, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has additional resources here.

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