Social media relays grief over deaths of Fayette County teens

jkegley@herald-leader.comSeptember 29, 2012 

This September was the first time in recent memory that so many Lexington teenagers died in the span of a week.

The circumstances of the four deaths were different, but all left friends and loved ones, their classmates and peers wrestling with the same questions. School grief counselors did their best to provide support.

"The first question many children and teens ask is 'Why?'" said Velva Reed-Barker, coordinator of the Fayette County Public Schools' crisis team. "The next is, 'Is it going to happen to me?'"

The crisis team, a pool of volunteer guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists, was activated five times during the course of the week — once for each of the teens and once for a preschooler who died after an illness, Fayette County schools Superintendent Tom Shelton said.

The team's purpose is to move mental health professionals to schools where tragedy has struck.

Crisis team members had to be there for the students, but the past two weeks were so challenging that even they had to navigate through the grief and confusion.

"When children ask why, and we can't answer that for ourselves, then even we ask that question," Reed-Barker said. "There is no answer for that."

The team was first activated at Tates Creek High School after the death of Stuart Shields, 16, who died early Sept. 20.

With no clear warning to his parents, teachers or friends, Stuart, 16, a Tates Creek lacrosse player, took his own life.

About 8 p.m. that same day, Michael Sparks, 15, a freshman at Southside Technical Center, died after an ATV crash.

Two days later, Ashton Paige Goble, 16, Stuart's close friend and a junior at Tates Creek, died under circumstances that were not clear. Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said a manner of death had not been determined pending toxicology results. Her family could not be reached.

On Tuesday, Jaleel Raglin, 16, who had withdrawn from Fayette County Public Schools, was killed at an apartment on Winburn Drive.

The team was called to high schools in response to each death. School officials said crisis teams counseled students at several schools that Jaleel had attended, including Southern Middle and Tates Creek, Henry Clay and Bryan Station high schools.

In many cases, they were met with challenges brought about not only by grief but by the dawn of the digital age. Technology has changed how tragedy affects students and erased boundaries that once halted the spread of information.

The "Twitterverse" is quick to correct errors and silence rumors when it comes to national events, but not so much for smaller community news and gossip, said Kakie Urch, assistant professor of multimedia at the University of Kentucky.

"Activities we used to do in the analog world now take place in the digital cloud," she said. "That includes the natural social function of grieving. So, in the case of a death, some of the things that were whispered, true or false, over our Southern fence posts are now posted on Twitter."

Reed-Barker said that was something grief counselors encountered. Sometimes "the students know more about it than we do," Reed-Barker said.

News of the four deaths was posted on Twitter and Facebook within hours. Teens used Twitter simply to express grief and condolences. Others used the site to organize candlelight vigils.

"#RIPAshton #RIPSTEWIE #RIPJaleel #RIPmichael Four little Angels. God bless their loved ones," a user named EmilyClareee tweeted Sept. 25.

However, many students also unintentionally spread rumors or unverified facts over social media.

For example, rumors circulated quickly on Twitter that Stuart's suicide was the result of bullying. Stuart's father, Steven Shields, said he didn't think his son was bullied. He said the family doesn't know what led to Stuart's death.

"We have no idea, and that's what's so hard," he said.

In Jaleel's case, dozens posted "#RIPJaleel" on Twitter, turning the death into a trending topic hours before Lexington police or the Fayette County coroner's office confirmed his death. Others posted "#RIPMalik," apparently thinking the victim was Malik Johnson, who has been charged in Jaleel's killing.

Jaleel's friends and family have said Jaleel and Johnson, 20, had an ongoing disagreement. Jaleel had been in trouble before but had turned his life around since the birth of his month-old son, according to his parents, Charles Raglin and Tammy Adams.

When Michael Sparks crashed an ATV into a truck at Eastland Parkway and Anniston Drive, word spread quickly on Facebook that Michael's identical twin, Matthew, also was injured.

But Matthew had gotten off before the crash, he said. He had ridden with Michael to a neighbor's house but decided to leave early and was taking a bike home.

Matthew was nearby, however; he said he heard the crash and rode to the scene. He tried to perform CPR on his brother, actions that have earned commendation from the Boy Scouts of America.

Matthew spoke to the Herald-Leader from his sister's home in Wilmore last week, where he has spent much of his time since his twin's death. As he spoke, he soldered his brother's name onto a wooden cross someone had placed near the crash site.

His sister Gina Buckler, 36, said the family is no stranger to tragedy. In 2011, their brother Ronnie Sparks, 28, was murdered in Lexington. Buckler said that was tough, but she thinks Michael's death is tougher.

"I lost my brother, but this is different," she said. "When you're in the womb together, and you grow up side-by-side, it's different."

Matthew had not returned to school last week.

The crisis team has had to adjust. Rather than breaking news of a death to students, members are focusing more on squelching rumors and providing facts.

Reed-Barker said crisis team members had spoken with several students who had never been to a funeral.

Some students who don't know how to process grief act out. Their grades might fall, or their appetites might change, she said. Officials say it's important for students to talk about that.

"When students see an empty chair, sometimes that's very hard on them," Reed-Barker said.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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