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Schools struggle with the losses

Times Staff Writers

The writing assignment at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in Glendale on Monday was an exercise in group catharsis. The school’s grief-shattered staff asked students to write condolence letters to the family of head counselor Ron Grace, who was among the victims of the Metrolink train crash in Chatsworth on Friday.

“Everyone was just so sad,” said Tatevik Sarkisian, 13, an eighth-grader at the school. “We lost a really good person,” added her friend and classmate, Meline Teroganisian, also 13.

It was a sad day at many Southern California schools, as students, teachers and administrators struggled with the loss of parents, staff and alumni in the crash, which claimed 25 lives.

At Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, students and faculty returned to classes stunned by the loss of beloved English teacher Paul Long. He had just begun his second year at the school but had impressed everyone with his passion for teaching, his spiritual guidance and his gentle and humble manner.

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Moorpark High School grappled with twin losses -- recent graduates Aida Magdaleno, 19, of Camarillo, and Maria Elena Villalobos, 18, of Moorpark. Alumnus Antonio Martinez was injured in the crash.

“They were both exceptional young ladies with a bright future ahead of them,” said Anna Merriman, assistant superintendent of the Moorpark Unified School District. “It’s absolutely shocking. Everyone is in mourning around here, and everyone’s heart is broken.”

Villalobos’ mother is a secretary at Campus Canyon, an elementary school within the district, Merriman added.

Counselors were available at all schools in the district, and teachers with affected students were notified to be on alert for signs of distress, Merriman said. Grief counseling was also available for faculty and staff, she said.

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It was much the same in the Simi Valley school district, where administrators were still trying to tally the names of families who lost loved ones, said Bill Waxman, director of secondary education.

“Multiple schools have been affected,” he said.

And in Newhall, school officials sent crisis counselors to Hart High School to help students affected by the death of student Kari Hsieh. The school held a moment of silence after an announcement at 8 a.m., spokeswoman Pat Willet said.

Back at Roosevelt Middle School, counselors and psychologists were brought in Monday to help not just students, but faculty and staff. In fact, it was the adults who appeared to be in the greatest immediate need, Glendale Unified School District spokeswoman Linda Junge said. “The students so far seem pretty resilient,” she said.

Grace was a well-loved counselor who had worked at the school for 23 years, and volunteered to coach and referee sports teams. “He’s the face, the soul of this campus,” said Assistant Principal Maurice James. “As a staff, we’re devastated by this. . . . We’re going to take the next couple of days to try to get ourselves together and move forward, and try to honor his life.”

Principal Maria Gandera said the loss was all the more wrenching because Grace’s colleagues knew how devoted he was to his family.

“We lost our brother, we lost our friend, we lost our counselor,” she said. “But his family lost a father and husband.”

Oaks Christian held a morning assembly attended by most of the 730 high school students and many of their parents. They were briefed by head of school Jeff Woodcock about the sequence of tragic events that unfolded Friday evening -- how Long, his wife, Karen, and son, Devin, had been traveling home to Moorpark after attending the funeral of Long’s mother in South Carolina; how Long had been airlifted to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center suffering grave injuries; and how his pastor had been with the family when they made the decision to remove him from life support.

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Karen Long and Devin, a sophomore at Oaks Christian, also attended the assembly. Pastor Tony Amatangelo of Life Spring Community Church, where Paul Long was a part-time pastor, spoke to the somber assemblage and asked that they continue to support the family in the weeks and months ahead.

Clergy from other local churches, psychologists and grief counselors were on campus to help students cope. Faculty and staff were also coached to look for signs and symptoms of distress, such as crying, anger and numbness, Woodcock said.

“They talked through different things they could expect to see and were advised to allow kids to grieve in their own ways,” Woodcock said. “There are already reports from many advisors of a lot of tears, kids asking questions. Oaks Christian is a family and when one member aches and hurts, we all ache and hurt.”

The Oaks Christian community was mourning multiple losses. Math teacher Wanda Long, no relation to Paul Long, learned that her brother, Steve Burch, survived the crash with broken bones, but that a close friend from college, Walt Fuller, had died.

History teacher Blair Gillam was mourning for both Long and Fuller, who was a close family friend. Fuller, 54, was on his way to his Simi Valley home from his job as an air traffic manager at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.

Gillam and Fuller were in a softball league together, where Fuller was the pitcher. The next weekly game was scheduled for today.

“It’s a strange experience for me, with 25 people killed on that train and I knew two of them,” Gillam said. “It’s bizarre, but at the same time it’s an opportunity for me to reach out and support both families.”

Gillam said he is fortunate to work at a school where the sense of family and community will ease the grieving process for students and faculty.

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“We just had a big faculty luncheon today that was originally meant to be a monthly birthday celebration and potluck,” he said. “In light of this tragedy, just being with each other is some of the best therapy some of us could go through, sharing stories, remembrances and building each other up.”

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

carla.rivera@latimes.com

Times staff writers Evelyn Larrubia and Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.


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