During winter break at Wilkins Primary School in the Woodland Hills School District, workers had the somber task of rearranging the desks in a classroom in the shape of a U so that it would be less noticeable that one child would be missing when the students came back.
Assistant Superintendent Licia Lentz called parents to explain to them that 7-year-old Jo Lawrence Stewart wouldn’t be there. The first-grader and his father were killed in a Swissvale home the day after Christmas in what police described as an exchange of gunfire.
“Unfortunately, that wasn’t as difficult for me as I thought it would be,” Ms. Lentz said. “And I don’t want to say that scares me, but it’s unfortunate that that’s something we have to do.”
That’s because she’s done it before. It’s become a dreaded but well-practiced routine for the Woodland Hills School District. When students are killed, officials follow a response plan to help students, families and staff.
A school representative calls the family to offer support. Social workers and grief counselors talk with students and faculty. The district requests between 15 and 20 substitute teachers so staffers can attend a funeral.
The efforts all aim to help the school community cope, and eventually regain some semblance of normality.
But when students are killed each year — four were fatally shot over the past two school years — what is “normal?”
Woodland Hills is a sprawling district of about 3,500 students that come from 12 communities in the East Hills. It was created in 1982 by a federal court order to end segregation in the poor, predominantly black General Braddock School District, which served Braddock, North Braddock and Rankin. A U.S. District Court judge agreed with residents of General Braddock who had challenged the state’s creation of what they said was an unconstitutionally segregated district. So General Braddock was merged with four predominantly white and more affluent suburban school districts – Edgewood, Swissvale, Churchill and Turtle Creek.
Unique crisis response
On the first Friday in December, Woodland Hills Junior/Senior High School Principal Candee Nagy got a phone call about 6:15 a.m., shortly before students began to arrive. A 911 dispatcher who had graduated from the school said one of her students, a 17-year-old, had been shot near a bus stop in North Braddock. The staffers who normally handle crises were still on their way to work, so officials had to plan their response on the fly.
Classmates who were close to the victim learned of the shooting on social media on their way to school. They broke down when got to school. They gathered in Ms. Nagy’s office, cried and prayed. One vomited in her trash can.
As soon as they knew which hospital the student had been taken to, a social worker took his siblings there, Ms. Nagy said.
“Our crisis response is unique in every single situation,” she said. “And unfortunately, we’ve had many situations to be unique in.”
While the student ultimately survived, ripples from the shooting stretched beyond the high school. It happened at the corner of Kirkpatrick and Jones avenues, near a main bus stop for Wilkins Primary, Ms. Lentz said.
“When those kids came into school, they were OK, but they didn’t want to go home,” Ms. Lentz said. “So on Monday we had to have resources for the building.”
Two Wilkins Primary students have been killed over the past several years.
When a student dies, Principal Jean Livingston said her “mind has to switch right away.”
“I’m like, ‘All right, what am I going to do, how am I going to figure this out, how am I going to take care of my teachers, the little ones, the parents, the classmates?” she said. “So your brain goes into this nurturing mode, and you’re thinking, how are we going to get everybody through this?”
After Jo Lawrence died, the school paired a longtime art teacher with the regular classroom teacher to help students manage trauma through art and discussion.
Jo Lawrence loved Legos and the color red. So his first-grade classmates made red bracelets and took a photo to give his mother, along with a quilt. Each child marked his or her handprints on fabric squares to form angel wings behind his image.
“We just try to do little things and little memories, so that we keep them close to us,” Ms. Livingston said.
Some have been involved in a grief group.
“When class pictures and report cards came out, that was another unfortunate reminder,” Ms. Livingston said. “It isn’t something that goes away. They really are still processing it, and because they are little, it’s hard.”
Older students often seem to have a more difficult time managing grief, Ms. Nagy said.
“Unfortunately, I think they’re less capable of dealing with trauma than younger students, because they’ve been through more,” she said.
Do the right thing
At the start of his second try at eighth grade, Augustus “Gus” Gray promised his English teacher he wanted to succeed. No more sleeping in class, no more missed assignments, no more pretending he wasn’t smart.
And through the first 2 ½ months of the year, the kid with “kindergarten-teacher perfect” handwriting had finally begun to show signs of his true potential, said Margie Rehm, his teacher at Woodland Hills Jr./Sr. High School.
“He just wanted his family to know he was trying to do better,” Ms. Rehm said, recalling one of her last conversations with the 14-year-old boy before Thanksgiving break. “His family was the most important thing.”
Gus was shot and killed in Lincoln-Lemington in late November — the first of two fatal shootings of Woodland Hills students in three days. Ms. Rehm’s students returned from break and asked if she had heard about his death.
They asked if she was OK. Some were ready to talk about it, others weren’t.
She let the students lead the conversation.
“This isn’t something they teach you as a teacher,” she said. “You just have to learn as you go, and hope you do the right thing.”
In the months since Gus died, Ms. Rehm said she has become hyper-aware of bringing up subjects that could upset her students. She frequently asks them how they’re doing. She knows that gun violence in the news can dredge up trauma and grief anew. And she worries about them when they leave her classroom.
“At the end of every class on Fridays, I tell them, ‘Have a good weekend, be safe, and come back to me on Monday,’” she said. “For some students, that might be the only positive thing they hear. Sometimes you might be the only one waiting for them to come back.”
Ms. Rehm says she and other teachers struggle to find time to deal with their own grief while staying strong for their students.
“As teachers, we don’t have time to break down, or address our own feelings at school,” she said. “If you do, you do it out of earshot. I always put our kids first. I try to be their calm and stability, and deal with myself when I can. Right now, they’re what’s important.”
Just over four months after his death, reminders of Gus still linger throughout the school. Ms. Rehm recently saw graffiti scrawled in the bathroom with the words: “Long live Gus. We miss you.” She also keeps a photo of her fallen student posted at her desk. It’s a gesture his classmates noticed.
“They’ll come up to my desk, and I’ll be like, ‘What are you doing?’ she said. “And they’ll tell me, ‘I just wanted to see Gus for a minute.’”
Toll on teachers
Superintendent Alan Johnson estimates a Woodland Hills teacher may lose a dozen current students to violence over his or her career.
And that doesn’t include previous students: “That’s three or four classrooms full of kids you’re talking about,” Ms. Nagy said.
Mr. Johnson worries about the toll it takes on employees.
“You’re with somebody for nine months during a school year, and you build a relationship with them, five days a week,” he said. “Even after they’re gone, that’s somebody you knew, and somebody you remember. And when they’re gone tragically, it’s going to have an impact.”
Kids would ask them, ‘Am I going to get shot?’ and they wouldn’t know what to say.
Recently, the district held a training session at Wilkins, where teachers could meet in groups and talk with counselors.
“It’s a cleansing thing,” Mr. Johnson said. “I think we’re just now learning how important that is.”
Ms. Lentz said teachers need more training on how to deal with grief in the classroom. After Jo Lawrence died, Wilkins teachers told her about struggles talking with students.
“Kids would ask them, ‘Am I going to get shot?’ and they wouldn’t know what to say,” Ms. Lentz said.
At Wilkins, when a young student died two years ago, the school hung green items around the building because he loved the Incredible Hulk superhero, Ms. Livingston said. Wilkins planted a tree and plans to install a “peaceful space” outside, she said.
“We don’t want to be isolated, we don’t want to ignore it,” she said. “We want to remember.”
Ms. Livingston said repeated tragedies have made her and her staff more patient with students who may have difficult lives outside of school.
“I think a lot of times we do get stuck, and we think, ‘Why are they doing this? Why are they acting like this? What’s wrong with them? ‘” she said. “And then something like that happens, and you can’t even relate. It’s like, ‘Now I get it, That’s why they were acting like that. Everything was rough at home.”
Ms. Livingston said that one Wilkins teacher who experienced a student death in her class two years ago told colleagues: “I can only hope I was a good enough teacher for the last year of his life.”
After a student’s death, surrounding districts typically contact Woodland Hills to ask how they can help, Ms. Lentz said.
“We know a lot of people in other school districts, because we have to,” she said. “There’s a sense of caring among all of us.”
In early January, the Woodland Hills High School boys basketball team played at Penn Hills. The Penn Hills players presented their opponents with a banner that read “Wolverine Strong.”
Other students channel outrage into activism. “The kids have a voice now, more so than they have ever have had,” Ms. Nagy said. “And they’re processing their grief that way.”
A week after the Parkland, Fla., massacre, some Woodland Hills students formed a group advocating against gun violence.
Woodland Hills students were among the roughly 3,000 schools nationwide who demonstrated with school walkouts last month. But the death toll in their district has given them a closer brush with the havoc that gun violence wreaks.
“The adults think we’re going to be done as soon as the rallies are done, and we need to prove them wrong and show them that this isn’t going away, and isn’t going to stop until we create change,” said organizer Grace Brennan, a junior.
During a brief assembly before the walkout, another organizer asked her nearly 900 classmates in a filled auditorium who among them has personally been impacted or knows someone who has experienced the effects of gun violence. Nearly every student raised a hand.
A grieving mother
Cathy Welsh is a lifelong Wolverine. She went to school in Woodland Hills, sent her kids there and led the storied football team’s booster club. And she believes the district is as recognizable for its violence as it is its musicals and legacy of athletic success.
Ms. Welsh’s 16-year-old son, Jerame Turner, was gunned down in a double-shooting in Turtle Creek on a Monday night in late November.
In the months since, the school became an avenue for her to try to fix the problems that led to her son’s death. Ms. Welsh recently began attending Woodland Hills Students Against Gun Violence meetings, becoming a de facto team mom in the struggle she never expected at her doorstep.
“I feel like I need to do anything I can to help,” she said.
On Wednesday afternoon, she sat in the back of a first-floor choir classroom as a dozen students talked strategy and goals. The young activists kicked around ideas on organizing techniques, possible fundraisers and logistics for a trip they plan to take next week to Harrisburg to talk to state lawmakers. They also talked about a voter registration drive, and getting a permit to organize a march — something most of them aren’t old enough yet to do.
When one student suggested approaching the school board “delicately” about pursuing changes to quell violence against students, Ms. Welsh encouraged them to be direct.
“It shouldn’t be disrespectful, but it should be honest,” she said. “Not ‘Could you please do this?’ but ‘This is what we need. This is what we need you to do for us to end this violence.’ You’re great kids and you deserve safe communities.”
Ms. Welsh said the group gives her purpose: “How can you stay in bed in the fetal position when kids like this need you?” she said.
Several weeks ago, she guided the students as they organized a rally against gun violence, with families of victims invited.
At the center of the room, they set up some empty chairs in a circle, one for each Woodland Hills student killed recently.
“I never want to add a chair to that,” Ms. Welsh said. “I never want a family to feel like mine does.”
Matt McKinney: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1944, and Twitter @mmckinne17