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Highline Public Schools works to support students after a high schooler's sudden death

Students and staff at Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines are grieving after the sudden death of a 16-year-old boy who was in his junior year. Juan Carlos Con Guzman was found dead in the Green River last week. A spokesman for the King County Sheriff’s office said his death is being investigated as a homicide.

The impact of Con Guzman’s death has rippled out far beyond his immediate family. That sudden loss has sent shockwaves throughout the Highline school district, where social worker Lisa Foote leads a response team that coordinates support in the aftermath of tragic events like this one.

One way they do that, Foote said, is to set up a support room at school for students who need time to work through their emotions away from class. It’s also a space for teachers and school staff.

“They often join us in the support room. Their presence is very healing for our students as well,” Foote said. “It’s a community of healing, really.”

In the immediate aftermath of a student's death, the team's protocol includes writing a script for telling fellow students what happened. That's shared among the social workers, counselors, nurses and school psychologists who coordinate assistance. 

Jill Wilson-Zahn, a social worker who has been with the Highline district for 20 years, works with seven schools, including Mount Rainier. She said it’s important for school and district staff to understand the many ways that students are affected by the loss of a peer.

“What’s really important to acknowledge is that even though some students may not have known the student, they are all impacted by the grief because it’s part of their community,” Wilson-Zahn said. “It also can bring up other losses that they’ve had in their own lives.”

Wilson-Zahn said district leaders understand that there’s no set timeline for the grieving process and that some students may struggle for months, if not longer.

This kind of work can take an emotional toll on the counselors and social workers providing support to others. Foote said she finds solace getting outside in the mountains, and encourages students and staff to make sure they’re taking care of themselves.   

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.