Social Media Provided New Challenges When Westfield High School Faced Tragedy

February 4, 2013 at 9:43 AM

WESTFIELD, NJ—On Jan. 17, officials at Westfield High School learned that Freshman Mark Hollaway had died suddenly from the flu the way that many would that day—through social media. Through a student who had learned of Hollaway’s death through social media, to be specific.

Before school officials could verify that what they were hearing was true, the news spread like fire throughout the school and began spilling out into the community. By the time students left for the day, local news outlets had picked up and published the story that a student from Westfield High School had died.

Maureen Mazzarese, MA, MS, coordinator of counseling for grades Kindergarten through 12 for the Westfield Public School District, told TAP that the district is always prepared to face a crisis such as the death of a student or teacher.

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 “We have a plan in place for dealing with sudden tragic loss or crisis, which we have had, unfortunately over the years, too many occasions too use,” said Mazzarese.

A protocol was first put into place after the traumatic loss of one student in the 1990s. As part of that plan, when someone from the school dies, the principal becomes the point person. Once Principal Peter Renwick was informed of Hollaway’s death, it became up to him to verify the information.

Relying on word-of-mouth via Facebook was not an option. Gossip and even hoaxes are common on the internet—just ask Manti T’eo.

“Social media presents a challenge for us,” said Mazzarese. “What friends can post on Facebook we can’t post in an announcement.”

So while word of Hollaway’s death was already out, school officials kept mum on the subject while they contacted his family to verify what they had heard. They also wanted to respect the family’s privacy and wishes.

On Jan. 17, when asked by local media (including The Alternative Press) if rumors that a student from the school had died, media point person Lorre Korrecky replied with this email:

“Westfield High School was notified today of the off campus death yesterday of one of our students.  We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the family, and we respect the privacy of the family at this very difficult time. 

“In a statement by Westfield High School Principal, Peter Renwick, he said, ‘My heart goes out to the student’s family and friends. Our teachers and counselors are ready to provide support and guidance to classmates as we grieve this loss together.’”

“You can’t send anything out until you know it’s true,” explained Mazzarese. “We have to be absolutely accurate in what we report.”

It wasn’t until Friday, Jan. 18, that the health department confirmed that Hollaway had died from illness related to the flu.

Meanwhile, school officials were not ready to tell the world who the student was, even if everyone already knew. “We want to be very respectful of the family’s wishes,” said Mazzarese.

Though media who inquired were given a little bit of information, no information at all went out directly to parents from the school until Jan. 18, just before 11 a.m.

At the school, students who took a class with Hollaway as well as students who officials knew had been close with him were told of his death by school counselors on Jan. 17. Staff members had been informed quickly that day of Hollaway’s death and told how some students might react.

“We give teachers as many resources as we can,” said Mazzarese.

Students were told they could leave class to spend time with counselors as needed. For its 1,857 students, Westfield High School has 10 counselors, all of whom have a master’s degree in counseling. The school also has a six-member child study team, which includes three psychologists and one social worker.

“Counselors were available throughout the days following Mark’s death for students who needed support,” said Mazzarese. “The counseling department also offered a place for students to gather and get support from each other, as well as counselors. We will continue to be available for any student who needs our support and ready to connect them to community resources if they need additional help.”

The school has the option to bring in outside resources as needed. In this case, officials decided to keep to the counselors that the students were already familiar with.

Running classes as usual was always part of the plan. “Most kids require structure,” explained Mazzarese. “You want to provide, as much as you can, a sense of normalcy.”

A list was made of students who may have been especially connected to Hollaway or who were dealing with a loss of their own and for whom this event could feel traumatic. Counselors were and are still reaching out to those students. For those who need additional help, school counselors are able to refer them to outside grief counselors.

“We are working with Imagine now, which is a phenomenal organization to have in our town,” noted Mazzarese.

Students at WHS have also found their own ways to heal and remember their friend together. On Sunday, Jan. 21, they held a vigil for Hollaway on school grounds that over 200 students, friends, family and members of the community took part in.

And then there’s Facebook. Within hours of learning of Hollaway’s death, friends founded a Facebook page that has become both a makeshift memorial and a virtual gathering place where friends, family and supporters go to comfort each other and to remember the extraordinary boy who is lost to them.

Nearly 1,500 people have “liked” RIP Mark Hollaway since it was created.

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