Community rallying around NHS studentsPublished 10:03am Friday, March 12, 2010
By AARON MUELLER
Niles Daily Star
Most students walking through the halls of Niles High School Monday morning were unaware of what had happened that weekend. They didn’t know that one of their own, Dakotah Eliason, a 14-year-old freshman, had allegedly shot his grandfather in his Niles Township home early Sunday morning.
But now in the wake of an onslaught of media coverage and rumors circulating throughout the community, there is not a single student who isn’t familiar with the incident – and the others that have struck recently.
For these students, it’s the third major tragedy in the past two months.
Principal Jim Knoll said this is the greatest string of crises to affect the district he has ever seen.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and this is the most odd set of circumstances that I’ve been around in our little town,” he said. “We don’t have this type of stuff happen around here. We just don’t.”
Those are sentiments also shared by community members affected by the other two tragedies.
First, Carolyn Tarwacki, who helped with the Niles band program as a representative for the music education company Quinlan and Fabish, and her husband John were murdered on Feb. 5 in their Niles Township home. Dozens of NHS band members mourned at a candlelight vigil Feb. 8. The search for the murderer is ongoing.
Then on Feb. 11, Alex Wentz, a popular 15-year-old freshman, died in an apparent experiment gone wrong with the “choking game” in his Niles home. More than 1,000 people attended Wentz’s viewing, many of them students from NHS.
The school’s crisis management team was enabled after the Tarwacki murders and has been “on high alert” ever since, according to Knoll.
“The people on our crisis team range from school counselors to behavior specialists, social workers, psychologists,” Knoll said. “It’s a wide-ranging group of people, because we know there’s a lot of tasks that have to be done in a very short period of time.”
Joan Langmeyer, who is the school counselor and the leader of the crisis management team, said the past two months have been unlike anything she has ever seen in her 25 years at Niles Community Schools.
“(The students) don’t know what to do with these feelings,” Langmeyer said. “They are feeling stuff I never felt when I was 14 years old.”
Members of the crisis management team are available during all hours of the school day and speak in classrooms.
“We have team members go into different classrooms if it (involves) a particular student in the classroom,” she said. “I mean, you have an empty seat there.”
Knoll sent out a letter to the families of students Wednesday to make them aware of behaviors to watch out for and to give them a list of area community mental health care providers.
Langmeyer and Knoll said local counselors, psychologists and clergy have been very active in helping the students during this trying time.
“I can’t tell you the amount of support we’ve gotten as a building from the community,” Knoll said. “You don’t get through this stuff with one group or one organization. You really have to pull together.”
Robin Harvell, the clinical supervisor of Children’s Services at Riverwood Center, is one of the people who has reached out to support the school. She says even students who didn’t directly know the people involved in the tragedies can be affected.
“It just makes kids think about loss and makes them more vulnerable, whether they knew them or were close to them or not,” she said.
Harvell recommends that classmates and parents be on the lookout for signs of depression, including a sudden drop in grades, increased irritability, loss of interest in activities and sleep or appetite problems.
Possibly the biggest question students and faculty face right now is “why?”
What would drive someone to kill an innocent couple in the community, cause a popular young man to experiment with a deadly game and bring another teen to allegedly shoot his grandfather?
So far there are few answers.
“Developmentally, I’m telling you what, it’s a lot to take in and a lot to make sense of,” Langmeyer said.
Signs of depression to watch for after a tragedy
• Increased irritability
• Feeling numb
• Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable to them
• Withdrawing from friends
• Sudden drop in grades
• Feeling tired all the time
• Wanting to sleep all the time
• Feeling hopeless
• Having difficult sleeping; nightmares
• Loss of appetite or increase in appetite
• Increased aggression
Source: Riverwood Center