For a principal who lost five of her students to violent deaths in a single week earlier this year, Carol Beck is a decided optimist.
The garden, which Beck hopes to dedicate this spring, will serve as a memorial to the more than 50 students from her school who have died at the wrong end of a gun since she became principal five years ago. “We want to make a statement in the neighborhood that we want to bring death into life and change something from negative to positive,’' Beck says. “The students don’t know what is beautiful. Having the garden there will hopefully generate a sensitivity to something that is fragile.’'
It is this attention to her students’ noneducational needs that has already driven Beck to create “grieving rooms’'--in-school sanctuaries where students and staff can go to get away from their violent and chaotic surroundings. These rooms, which are unused classroom or counseling spaces, allow students and teachers to discuss the impact of death and other personal problems with the school’s mental-health professionals. In times of crisis, which seem to be all too frequent at Jefferson High, several rooms are manned throughout the day, and students and staff members are encouraged to drop in for aid.
“We have a unique task that others don’t have,’' says Verrod Matthew, a drug-abuse-prevention counselor at the school. “The grieving is so constant. Before they can finish the grief cycle, another thing happens.’'
The grieving rooms have played an important role in helping the Jefferson High community regain some sense of normalcy following the fatal shootings of Tyrone Sinkler, 16, and Ian Moore, 17, on the morning of Feb. 26. The same day, a classmate, Khalil Sumpter, 15, was arrested and charged with the killings. Although the shootings made headlines around the country, few accounts noted that, at the time of the tragedy, Jefferson students were already mourning two other classmates who had been killed by firearms in the neighborhood over the previous weekend. And within hours of the in-school shootings, a fifth student, Marlon Smith, accidently shot and killed himself while talking on the telephone with a friend.
And those are only the most recent incidents. In January, three students were stabbed, although not fatally, outside the school. And back in November, a student entered the school with a gun, shot and killed a fellow student, and seriously injured a teacher. “We are in a war zone,’' says Beck, whose office has a book about war-torn Beirut prominently displayed. “We may not have bombs falling, but we have high-powered guns and rifles being used.’'
Beck acknowledges that violence is not unique to Jefferson. As of March, there have been 16 students shot and six killed in incidents at or near New York City schools; five teachers shot and one killed; and two parents and one police officer shot. Still, no other school in the city has lost as many students to violence.
What is different about Jefferson, Beck says, is that the vast majority of her 1,900 students-- about 80 percent of whom are black and 20 percent of whom are Hispanic--live in the 40 housing projects in the immediate area, giving the school the largest concentration of publicly housed students in the city. “We have dependent communities,’' she says, “and the children feel the impact of all these negative forces.’'
Concerned that the violence was taking too great an emotional toll on her students, Beck established the first makeshift grieving room three years ago. “The young people in this neighborhood were becoming immune to emotional responses to violent death,’' she explains. “They were becoming zombies with no emotion, or suppressed emotions. They don’t go to funerals. There is no closure on the act.’'
The grieving rooms, Beck says, allow students “to bring the grief and the reality to the surface so they can begin to heal themselves. It’s not just a mentalhealth issue, but a physicalhealth issue.’'
In these rooms, students are able to vent their concerns and fears about death and family problems to mental-health workers. Those who come are greeted by a counselor, who has water and tissues on hand. Although students can stay as long as they want, the staff generally does not want them to leave the building until they appear emotionally stable.
The in-school killings in February were especially traumatic for students and teachers because many were in the hall when the shootings occurred and actually witnessed the violence and its aftermath. “There are certain places that we identify emotionally as being sanctuaries,’' says Raymond Martinez, the assistant principal for pupil personnel services. “On the top of my list would be a church and a school. All of a sudden, that sanctuary was shattered for people. For the first time, people said: ‘I could be at risk. I could be shot.’
During the following days, the school’s psychologist, two social workers, seven guidance counselors, and Matthew, the drug counselor, were kept busy. A total of six grieving rooms were set up-- three for students and three for staff members.
The school’s teachers, like its students, have been hard hit by the violence. “Because the staff has gone through the same emotional roller coaster when these events have occurred,’' Martinez says, “it has become sensitized to the fact that this could affect a teenager, too.’' After the February incident, Beck canceled the last period of the day for more than two weeks to allow teachers to gather and plan alternative activities.
It’s Friday afternoon, and several students are sitting in one of the designated grieving rooms talking about the violence and the mentalhealth services the school offers them. Senior Muller Cherubim says the support he receives at school “is very helpful.’' Yet, he observes: “Things happen so quickly. You don’t really have a chance to recuperate.’'
Muller’s friend, Eric Alexander, says that he, too, appreciates the chance to talk things out. “It makes you feel better,’' he says. When students are shot, the tragedy goes far beyond an immediate circle of friends, Eric points out. “You don’t have to know them. It happened in the school,’' he says.
Aaronda Kilgore, a junior, and Marlon, the boy who accidently shot and killed himself, were in the same homeroom. She says she found out about his death that evening on the news, after walking home from school with him. “It was like, ‘My God, that’s my friend,’' she says. “I was crying that night.’'
At first, Aaronda says, “I didn’t feel like talking about it.’' But eventually she made her way to one of the grieving rooms to share her feelings. The violence in and around the school has left her shaken. “School’s supposed to be a safe place,’' she says. “What’s going on?’'
Beck acknowledges that when she began her career as an educator, she never thought she would be devoting as much time as she does to arranging and attending students’ funerals. “I’ve been to funerals where I was the only person there besides the organist,’' the principal says. One time, she recalls, a victim’s mother told her she was too busy doing her laundry to attend. “That was one time when I seriously considered committing a violent act of my own, but I decided against it,’' Beck says with a small, sad laugh.
“I deal with death on a daily basis,’' she says. “This has to stop.’'--Ellen Flax
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as A Time To Mourn