PARKERSBURG - In the days following the deaths of a school teacher, her husband and their daughter in Doddridge County, school administrators in both Ritchie and Doddridge counties scrambled to provide support and understanding to both students and teachers.
On Sept. 3, Frederick A. Spencer III, his wife, Dixie L. Spencer and their daughter Patience Josette "P.J." Spencer were killed in their home off West Virginia 18 north of West Union. Officials and relatives identified the alleged shooter as 16-year-old Joseph Spencer, who will be tried as an adult.
Dixie Spencer was a teacher at Ritchie County Middle School and some of the family's children attended school in Doddridge County. Both school systems brought in counselors and memorial services were held in both counties.
Photo by Michael Erb
Worthington Elementary School Principal Joe Oliverio stands next to a plaque dedicated to 11-year-old Patrick Kincaid Jr., a student who died in March 2009 following open heart surgery.
The triple homicide and response by those school systems raised questions about how prepared Wood County schools and administrators are to deal with providing support and counseling following a tragedy.
"We do have plans in place for when there is a tragedy and how school officials respond," said Sue Woodward, assistant superintendent of school services for Wood County Schools
Woodward said the district has a crisis team and a counseling plan as part of the district's crisis management plan.
The Crisis Intervention Team is responsible for arranging counselors for schools during a tragedy, such as a student or teacher death.
"The crisis team is made up of school counselors," said Dianne Boggess, coordinator of student services and assessment. "If something happens, the administrator at the school and the school counselor decide if they need help from the crisis team. They call those counselors, and they clear it with their immediate supervisor who releases them to go to the school in need."
Those counselors provide additional support for students and staff, everything from speaking to classrooms and groups of students to providing one-on-one counseling sessions, Boggess said. In some cases, students can be referred to outside agencies for additional help.
"There are lots of different things they do, but it is all dependent on the needs of the school and the situation," she said.
Woodward said one of the most recent times the crisis counseling plan went into effect was at Worthington Elementary School.
Eleven-year-old Patrick Kincaid Jr. died in March 2009 after undergoing open heart surgery to replace a faulty valve. The school had rallied around Kincaid prior to the surgery, raising thousands of dollars to help the family cover medical costs and showing support for their friend.
Worthington Principal Joe Oliverio said officials first used the district's phone messaging service to contact parents, then contacted staff.
"The parent is the first line of support for any child, and we wanted them to be able to break the news so the kids wouldn't have to hear it first from a teacher or staff member," he said. "It also allowed us to get in touch with our school counselor who then set up a plan to meet with the students and bring in additional counselors."
Oliverio said staff members met an hour before the start of school that day to discuss how Kincaid's death would be handled within the school.
"It was also to help the adults deal with their own grief and shock," he said. "You can't be strong for others until you can be strong for yourself."
Oliverio held an assembly to speak with students.
"As their principal I felt they were looking to me for answers," he said.
About a half dozen counselors were brought in, visiting classrooms, meeting with small groups of students and speaking with individual students as needed.
Thanks to the quick response of staff and counselors, Worthington returned to a "normal" school day by lunchtime.
Shortly after Kincaid's death, the school placed a plaque above a memorial garden which had been built in memory of a teacher's child who had died of cancer. Students and staff held a small ceremony for their friend, inviting Kincaid's family to attend and to view the memorial.
"Thank goodness we've not had to add to the garden," Oliverio said.
Boggess said putting intervention responses into the district's crisis plan has made it easier for administrators and staff to address difficult situations during challenging times.
"They don't have to wing it," Boggess said. "Emotions are already frazzled and you are trying to deal with everything as quickly as you can. This gives them a guide and some help.
"Thankfully, we don't have to use this very often," she said.