- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Children at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in Arlington were given an early lesson in loss yesterday as teachers and parents helped them grieve in the aftermath of a school bus crash that killed a third-grader.

Lilibeth Gomez, 9, was killed Monday when a garbage truck and the school bus she was riding collided. Yesterday, students met with grief counselors — who were staffed at more than one per classroom — and drew condolence cards and pictures for Lilibeth’s family.

Ryan Jakovich, 8, was sitting across from Lilibeth on the bus when it was struck.

“He saw everything,” said his mother, Ellen Jakovich. “It’s slowly sinking in for him. He saw a couple of kids not moving. He said to me, “Mom, they were just lying there.’”

Miss Jakovich said Ryan had a bump on his head but was otherwise OK.

“We were still picking glass out of his shoes this morning,” said Miss Jakovich, who is vice president of the school’s parent-teacher association.

Other students who were on the bus kept reliving the accident in their minds.

“Every 10, 15 minutes he tells me about what happened in the bus with his friend dying,” said Roberto Solano, whose two sons, 8 and 5, were on the bus.

Some who knew Lilibeth tried to cope as best they knew how.

Lavonda Courtney, who has three children attending the school, said her daughter knew Lilibeth. “My daughter had to comfort her friend that was crying all day,” she said.

Zenash Zewdie, 40, said her daughter, a second-grader, was saddened by the death. “She was not [acting in] her usual way,” she said. “She talks about it again and again.”

Hoffman-Boston Principal Yvonne Dangerfield told parents they should reassure children they are safe.

“Your child may experience grief,” she said. “Allowing your child time to talk, write or draw to express their feelings [and] maintaining normal routines [will help].”

School officials said they were heartbroken.

“It’s very hard when you work with children and dedicate your life to helping them learn and grow for the future, and suddenly that future is gone,” said Linda Erdos, a spokeswoman for Arlington County Public Schools.

Miss Erdos said 39 students were absent yesterday, compared with 25 students on an average day.

Several parents chose not to put their children back on the route of the bus that crashed. Only 45 children took that route, which 65 children normally travel, Miss Erdos said.

“Children are much more resilient in the long run than adults, but I think they can also be frightened, so it’s finding that balance,” she said.

Miss Erdos said school staff members would ride the bus with children again today and that the counselors will stay at the school, which has nearly 450 students.

A letter sent home to parents stated that children may have bad dreams, experience changes in appetite or stomach aches, or be clingy.

Psychologists at the school said children also may experience a decline in grades and have new fears of death or the dark. They also may revert to behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting.

Officials at other schools who have dealt with such grief offered advice for helping children cope with death.

“It doesn’t ever go away — there is always a hole there,” said Jeffrey Young, superintendent of the Newton Public School District outside of Boston, where four students were killed in a bus wreck four years ago.

“But life does go on. It has to go on,” he said. “You just have to allow the right space and time for grieving, which is normal and natural and required.”

The Oak Hill Middle School band was on a field trip to Nova Scotia in April 2001 when it overturned, Mr. Young said. Some children wrote letters to the families and counselors helped each student grieve in personal ways, he said.

After a Lakeville, Minn., elementary school lost a second-grader in a bus accident in February 2000, the community put together a bus safety video that was sent to all schools in the state.

“It was a positive outcome from a terrible situation,” said Cherry View Elementary School Principal John Beal.

In Arlington, parents learning of the crash on Monday rushed to be with their children, but many were told they could not immediately see their sons or daughters.

Some parents were upset their children were learning about the crash from counselors and not from their families.

“They won’t allow me to talk to her,” said Khadra Abdullhi, who was trying to get in touch with her child in first grade.

Zegeye Kassa, the father of a 4-year-old girl, said their dinnertime would be reserved for a discussion about death — something to which his daughter had never been exposed.

School officials said they had no knowledge of parents being turned away.

Amy Doolittle contributed to this report.

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