The Need for Grief Counseling on the Rise in Local Schools

By: Sarah Snyder
NewsWest 9

When a loved one dies, it's hard to know what to do, but it's especially hard for kids who have to head back into the classroom.

The Ector County school district says there's a growing need for counseling.

Just this past weekend, Permian High students lost Kaleigh Dunn, a classmate and a friend. 
Ector County is offering grief counseling for students.

And because she was involved in so many school activities they say as many as 400 students could be affected.

NewsWest 9 spoke with the crisis team to find out what they do to help.

"It is very hard for anyone of any age to understand and face their own death or the death of someone they love," Ren Pettijohn with the E.C.I.S.D Crisis Team, said.

That's why district counselors are developing all types of ways to help students deal with grief.

"Grades falling, lack of interest, depression, things that might have been fun before aren't fun any longer," Pettijohn said.

There's 60 counselors on hand for the Ector County schools.

"We're trying to step up our pace and be better prepared to meet those needs," Pettijohn said.

E.C.I.S.D. counselors are also developing a method of helping students of all ages deal with their emotions. Counselors use a sandbox and allow them to position miniature figures into a scene they need to express.

"That's why a technique like this is so valuable," Pettijohn said. "Because they can express themselves using toys and art materials without needing the language or verbal skills to tell what is going on."

40% of students seek a counselor's help while the rest are often referred by a teacher or friend looking for signs of anger, grades dropping, and changes in behavior.

"It seems to have increased to me just because I think we're better trained now," Pettijohn said. "We respond more fully to incidents that before might not have been handled with a team approach."

The team provides students with accurate information about the event, they give close friends and family a more private setting to grieve, and they contact other schools where students may have been affected.

"Then in the days that follow, we help kids understand the whole process of funerals, some may have experienced them before, some may not," Pettijohn said.

So far this year, 6 major incidents have required a higher level of crisis counseling.

"I think that we're responding better and with more training earlier to incidents as they occur," Pettijohn said.

In early December, the Ector County district will host a counseling seminar training other schools throughout the Permian Basin using some of the counseling methods they've found successful.