STMS, community mourn loss
South Tahoe Middle School and community agencies are working together to help students cope with the death of 11-year-old Claudia Torres.
Counselors from Tahoe Youth and Family Services, El Dorado County Mental Health, South Tahoe High School and the middle school spoke with sixth-grade classes Tuesday and Wednesday and were available throughout the course of both days to answer questions and offer comfort. Four Lake Tahoe Unified School District psychologists, School Resource Officer Jeff Reagan and school nurse Mary Burns were also on campus.
“Since we don’t know what the cause of death was we can’t tell (the students,)” South Tahoe Middle School Vice Principal Kathi Jensen said. “(We told them) she collapsed and she was taken to Barton (Memorial Hospital) where she died.”
Principal Mike Greenfield announced the news to the school Tuesday morning and met with teachers and staff to discuss ways to help grieving students.
“The first important thing is that they be able to talk as much as they can,” said Melissa Traders, a counselor at Tahoe Youth and Family Services. “Many don’t understand so they fill in what they don’t know. Facts help the healing process. This age is so hard. They are so emotional and something like this just brings it to the surface.”
Burns explained how counselors approached the issue in classrooms.
“Basically it was, ‘We have a serious problem we need to talk to you about. We had a death of a student and we don’t know the cause. We do know she died and we need to talk to you about it,’ ” Burns said. “There were a lot of hysterics and crying. I think I was in a state of shock yesterday. I didn’t start crying until today. I’ve been crying since I got here.”
Jensen said middle school-aged children have a tendency to spread rumors and there have been plenty circulating throughout campus.
“There are kids that think they know (what happened) and rumors are just flying everywhere,” she said. “Kids are saying drugs. We don’t know. If that’s an issue, my gosh, we’ll address it. I think the middle school does a very good job getting the truth out to the kids. When things happen here, we’re telling them as much as we know.”
Burns said Torres is remembered by her classmates as a kind, loving child.
“The stuff we’ve heard from the kids has been fantastic,” she said. “(We’ve heard) what a good friend she was, how she went out of her way to help other people. The kids talk about her and they get these smiles on their faces. (They say) things like, ‘She was so little, so young.’ “
School officials said some students were extremely shocked or saddened when they first heard the news of the death, but later pulled together, generating ideas on how to help Torres’ family.
“There has been tears,” Burns said. “There’s disbelief, lots of crying, hugging. (The kids) are very comforting to each other. They’ve made posters and written letters to the family.”
Students also are passing around a white bucket to collect pocket change to donate for funeral expenses.
Burns expressed sympathy and compassion for the grieving students.
“I just love them and their little hearts are broken,” she said. “At 11, they’re just learning who they are.”
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