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A student pauses in front of a memorial altar dedicated to all of the Oakland Unified School District children who have died by violence on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 at Castlemont High in Oakland, Calif. At least two of the students killed this year attended Leadership Preparatory School, one of three small schools within the Castlemont campus. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

OAKLAND — They call it "psychological first-aid" — triage for the emotional wounds inflicted by the violent death of a student, a friend, a relative, a classmate.

In Oakland schools, it is needed all too often. Eight of the city's 2009 homicide victims were teenagers who were enrolled, or recently enrolled, in Oakland public schools. The youngest, Josue Lopez-Gil, was 13 when he was shot and killed in May in front of friends.

"These kids are seeing and experiencing losses at this tremendously high rate," said Barbara McClung, who coordinates the district's crisis response team. "We now know how to go in and do triage."

As soon as counselors arrive at a school, they search for the people who are most traumatized: those who may have witnessed the bloodshed, close friends and relatives of the victim, kids who are reliving a personal tragedy.

The sense of urgency is real for many reasons, including this: One killing often leads to another. And another.

McClung said counselors — including local mental health providers who do not charge the district for their services — try to break that cycle through "healing circles," small groups of students and teachers most affected by a tragedy. Teachers are being trained to spot signs of trauma, such as uncharacteristically aggressive behavior and truancy, so school staff members can address underlying problems rather than punish a student for acting out, she said.


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It's common for teachers and principals to suffer from feelings of "powerlessness and helplessness," she said, while teens often experience "the sense of how this could have happened to them."

When Ricardo Cortez died at age 14, his friends at Far West High School in North Oakland struggled to accept that "he didn't get to grow up. He didn't get to grow up to become the person he was meant to be," McClung said.

Gun violence has claimed the lives of least 10 teenagers since Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith came to the district in July, including 17-year-old Desiree Davis, a New Orleans transplant and Oakland Technical High School student who was killed in a drive-by shooting on Labor Day.

Eric Toscano, a student-athlete at Skyline High School, is the most recent victim; he died early Sunday morning after a drive-by shooting at his 18th birthday party. His football coach said he was college-bound.

"It's one thing to know there's violence in the city," Smith said. What really troubles the superintendent, he said, is "the loss of potential."

Phillip Wright, a 16-year-old Oakland High School student with a knack for making his friends and teachers smile, was merely answering the door when he was gunned down Nov. 19. He didn't have a chance to open it. Police say the shooter didn't appear to know — or care — who was on the other side.

Julie McCalmont, a teacher who took Wright under her wing after his mother died, said he had a learning disability and that school was a struggle for him. Despite those challenges, she said, he showed up every day and completed his work. He took a job at the East Oakland Boxing Association. He steered clear of gangs and drugs.

"This is a kid that's supposed to make it," McCalmont said. "That's why it's not fair. He was following all the rules. In the end, he still got murdered over something he had nothing to do with."

Veronica Redmond, 15, lost her best friend. She misses Wright's good-natured ribbing, his loyalty, his company during lunch and after school, and the energy he brought to class. "It's quieter," she said. "I don't feel as much love around. I'm more alone now."

Veronica sat still as McCalmont and Wright's 15-year-old cousin, Denesha Davis, talked about the teenager in an interview last week. The stories brought back memories, she explained afterward, but they didn't bring her pain to the surface; it was already there.

"The feelings don't go away," she said.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

STUDENT HOMICIDE VICTIMS
  • May 25: Josue Lopez-Gil, 13, ROOTS International
  • July 22: Marco Esparza, 16, Leadership Preparatory High School
  • Aug. 21: Ricardo Cortez, 14, Far West High School
  • Sept. 2: Erik Monrroy, 15, formerly at Community Day School (not enrolled in an Oakland school in September)
  • Sept. 7: Desiree Davis, 17, Oakland Technical High School
  • Nov. 19: Phillip Wright, 16, Oakland High School
  • Dec. 3: Kenneth Ross, 18, Oakland Technical High School
  • Dec. 4: Antonio Nunez, 16, Leadership Preparatory High School