Back to school in wake of tragedy

Oregon High School readjusts after the death of student

OREGON – To the naked eye, Aug. 14 at Oregon High School looked just like any other first day of school.

Buses were pulling up and dropping students off – mostly freshmen.

The older kids were arriving by car, driving themselves or riding with friends. Some were dropped off by parents.

But things were different that Wednesday for members of the Oregon High community. Three days earlier, Jon Williams, who would have been a senior, died. Williams, 18, was found unconscious on the floor of an Oregon home the morning after a party.

The school has a plan for situations like this, because at Oregon a student death has become too familiar.

Jon was the second Oregon student to die in 2 months. Marc Cothard, a 2012 graduate, died June 19 after a car he was driving struck a utility pole on Oregon Trail Road.

In fact, during the past 10 years, Oregon High School has had 12 current or recent students die.

This year, 485 students attend Oregon High School; 129 are in the senior class.

Principal Andrew Nelson was at home when he got the call from Police Chief Darin DeHaan on that Sunday, as soon as Jon was pronounced dead.

His first call, then, was to Associate Principal Mike Boyer.

Together, the two started on the school’s well-honed crisis plan. Reconsidered and revamped every time a tragedy strikes Oregon High, the plan addresses a number of crises that a school could face – from severe weather to a school shooting.

The first step is to call all faculty members.

“We started calling immediately,” Nelson said. “The last thing that you want is for a faculty member to find out on the radio or on the news.”

By Sunday afternoon, the high school had opened its doors to the community, welcoming anyone who wished to speak with a counselor. Ten people showed up.

Then Wednesday came.

It was 8:05 a.m. Aug. 14, the first day of classes.

Oregon was prepared: In addition to the two staff counselors, 10 counselors from around the district showed up to help any students in need. Emmanuel Lutheran Church provided a pair of therapy dogs. But by 10 or 10:30, the school started to send some of the help home. Students, it appeared, didn’t need – or want – them. Only two students showed up at the counseling center throughout the day.

“Usually kids start showing up between classes,” Nelson said. “That just wasn’t happening.”

Things were calm, quiet.

“The kids did remarkably well,” Nelson said. “I was taking the pulse of the building those first few days, and almost every person said it was one of the smoothest starts to the school year we’ve ever had.”

On Friday, Nelson went to Williams’ funeral, along with Boyer and Shannon Cremeens, the director of counseling for the school. They were there as school representatives, but also to provide support.

“I feel like I hugged everyone there,” Cremeens said.

School in Oregon has been in session now for more than a week, and things are much the same as they always are.

“The loss of a friend is such a hard thing, but I think kids in general enjoy having routine,” Cremeens said. “It’s nice to be able to get back to school.”