Tears, sad faces, hugs, stunned silences, churning emotions and unanswered questions – all are part of the reaction of the Woodson High students in the wake of last week’s tragedies: Two of their classmates have died.
Fairfax County police responded last Wednesday, Feb. 26, to Clara Barton Drive in Fairfax Station for a report of a pedestrian struck by a VRE train around 5:35 a.m. The victim, who died, was identified as Woodson sophomore Jack Chen, 15, of Fairfax Station. Police say the circumstances surrounding his death remain under investigation.
Two days later, Friday, Feb. 28, students learned another classmate – this one, a junior – had also died. No details about this death have been released. But one thing is certain: Both of these teenagers died too soon. And all those who knew and cared about them are deeply grieving their loss, including Woodson Principal Jeff Yost.
"These are great kids, with strong friendships," he said on Monday. "These kids made other kids smile and their teachers and coaches, as well. In short, they were very typical kids. That is the scary part.
"Those students left behind are taking care of each other, their teachers and, yes, even their principal. Teachers are eliminating and/or altering assignments. We have postponed sending any kind of interim grades out this week ... maybe next week."
Additionally, said Yost, "Counseling is available at school all of this week, and we have counselors, psychologists and social workers that work at every school already."
IN A FEB. 28 EMAIL to the Woodson community, Yost wrote, "I am saddened to report to you the unexpected death today of one of our 11th-grade students. Out of respect for the family’s wishes, Woodson High School will not be providing any additional details related to this incident. Our thoughts and support are with the student’s family and friends during this difficult time."
He said the school has a crisis team in place and support services for students, staff, and families are available. Yost also stressed the importance of everyone pulling together as a community "to identify risk factors and assist any child who may be in need of academic, social or emotional support."
"Social media is the place where students ‘congregate’ to share their thoughts about a tragedy," Yost told the parents. "Unfortunately, it is also a place where rumor, innuendo and speculation often prevail. Please make every effort to be aware of your child’s activities on social media and encourage them to let adults know when they read something that concerns them."
A community meeting was set for Wednesday night, March 5, at the school to let parents know what Woodson’s doing "to support their children during this time of grief, provide information and resources for parents to use as they help their children, and tell them about community efforts to build a network of support" for the students.
In addition, FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza and her administration are working on countywide initiatives that support student mental health and wellbeing. The School Board is concerned, as well.
"As the Braddock District School Board member and a parent of two Woodson students, I am deeply saddened by the loss of these two students and extend my heartfelt condolences to their families and loved ones," said Megan McLaughlin.
"I support FCPS’ dedicated efforts to work with the community in examining what has happened and in determining how best to prevent future loss of life," she continued. "As a social worker and Board member, I will continue to advocate for community interventions that reduce student stress and improve their ability to cope with adversity."
LAST FRIDAY, FEB. 28, Woodson’s basketball team beat Herndon in a regional semifinals game. And following the deaths of the two Woodson students, the win was an emotional one for the Cavaliers. "We’re doing this for the community," said Woodson senior Michael Szabo. "We feel like this can bring it together in a positive manner in a negative time."
Woodson head coach Doug Craig praised the Cavaliers for responding well to tough times. "It’s been a really difficult week in the community and I thought our kids really showed their character," he said. "To fight through and play that well on a big stage against a great team … and for our kids to fight through all the adversity and find a way at the end to pull out the game [was big]."
Connection sports editor Jon Roetman contributed to this story.