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Students Return To School In Hopes Of Handling Grief as Investigation Into Smithfield School Accident Continues

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. MARCH 23, 2000 — Students returned to Smithfield Middle School Thursday as counselors tried to help them handle their grief over the death of an 11-year-old peer.

Three children remain hospitalized Thursday -- one in critical condition -- as investigators try to determine why a minivan sped out of control into seven students waiting for classes to start Wednesday at Smithfield Middle School

As of 12:30 a.m. Friday, 11-year-old Antwon Patterson is in stable condition at Johnston Memorial Hospital. Blake Creech, 11, is in fair condition at

UNC Hospitals

, and Kenneth Frazier, 12, is in critical condition at UNC.

Eleven-year-old Byrone Murray was killed in the accident witnessed by many of his friends. An 84-year-old woman had just dropped off a school project for her granddaughter when the minivan she was driving went into reverse and hit the students.

"It was just all surreal," one student says, describing the scene. "Everything happened in slow motion. No one knew what to do; no one knew what to say. Even the tough guys were crying."

Concerned parents watched as students arrived at the school Thursday morning, the scene of an adult-sized tragedy.

"We're trying to maintain as much of a normal routine as we can," says assistant superintendent E.D. Hall. "We're going to go ahead with classes as we would on any normal day, providing counselors and school psychologists for those kids who feel like they really need someone to talk with."

Coping With The Situation

Students and faculty attended a wake Thursday afternoon to remember 11-year-old Byrone Murray, who was killed in the incident.

At Smithfield Middle School, the site of Wednesday's incident, students found personal ways to say goodbye.

Students brought flowers and other mementos to share, and they are talking about a more permanent memorial, perhaps planting a tree. They have also decorated the lockers of the injured with "Get Well" signs and posters.

"It just helps with your emotions," says Ben Adams, student body president. "You just feel better in getting something down on paper."

More than 20 counselors were at the school to help teachers and students cope with the tragedy. Their goal was to get students to talk about their feelings and share their memories.

"Some of the kids are angry," says Lindsey Boone, student assistance director. "They have lots and lots of questions which they don't have answers to, so we try to provide answers to the questions they may have."

Counselors will be at the school the rest of this week and into next week, if necessary.

A private wake will be held Thursday evening for the families and friends of Murray.

A funeral will be held Friday at 2 p.m. at Wilson's Mills Christian Church, located on old U.S. 70 Business.

Experts advise parents or family friends to help children handle their grief this way:

  • Discuss and explain the death to the child.
  • Acknowledge that the child will grieve, but he or she may or may not express feelings the way adults do. Each person grieves in his or her own way in his or her own time.
  • Give the child time to grieve.
  • Share your own feelings about the loss with the child.
  • Seek professional help if the child shows signs of depression or anxiety.
  • Ways To Prevent Another Tragedy

    As the investigation into the crash continues, some parents and students are wondering if the school should share part of the blame for the tragedy.

    Many wonder whether the school made a mistake by allowing students to gather outside the building before the bell rings at 7:35 a.m.

    "I think that we should be able to go to the cafeteria or out in the main hallways or even go into the homeroom because people get there at 7 o'clock," says student Megan Lamm.

    Smithfield Middle School principal Dr. Patricia Harris says there is no written policy requiring students to remain outside, although by practice they do.

    "The practice has kind of been that they stay outside until that 7:35 bell rings," Harris says.

    In rain and extreme cold, Harris says she brings in the waiting students, but she says there are some who like to wait outside.

    In light of the school accident, Harris says she will make a point to tell students that they can come inside if that makes students and parents feel safer.

    Jennifer Phillips, a student at Smithfield, was also thinking of ways to make her school safer. She wants to prevent the pain of losing her classmate from happening again.

    While buying flowers for Byrone at Wal-mart Wednesday night, she noticed something in the parking lot.

    "We were just talking about things that we can do to prevent this," Phillips says. "We saw the barriers that they have got on the sidewalk."

    Phillips realized that those same type of barriers can be built on the sidewalk of Smithfield Middle School. She has already received over 100 signatures on her petition and is raising money for the project that she would like to dedicate to Byrone and the other injured students.

    The principal of the school says if Phillips is able to raise the money and get more signatures, her project could happen soon.

    First Aid

    Witnesses at the scene of the crash rushed to help the victims, but doctors say by helping them, people may do more harm than good.

    Depending on the circumstances, moving a victim can actually cause spinal cord damage. Doctors says the best thing someone can do is just comfort the injured person.

    "You can keep them warm if you think there's going to be a delay in the response of the EMS provider," says Dr. Robert DiLorenzo of Rex Hospital's Emergency Department. "But otherwise, I would not recommend moving them, particularly if they're complaining of pain in their neck or back."

    Doctors say the same advice applies to puncture wounds.

    Crash Investigation

    After Wednesday's incident, the Johnston County District Attorney has not decided whether to file charges against the driver.

    The driver of the minivan, 84-year-old Sara Kennedy, is back home. Police say she is healthy and alert.

    Investigators say they are sure that Kennedy did not intend to hurt anyone, but they still have to gather evidence for the possibility of charges.

    "At this time, we are still attempting to talk to witnesses and folks that were there, who may have seen what happened," says Lt. Bob Jones of the Smithfield Police Department.

    Right now, the vehicle has been impounded in Raleigh. The

    Highway Patrol

    will take it apart, looking for any mechanical problems that could have contributed to the crash.

    Authorities say Kennedy remembers little of what happened Wednesday.

    District Attorney Tom Lock will ultimately decide whether Kennedy will be charged at all. According to investigators, the most likely charge will be misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.

    "I am not saying that a crime occurred in the case, but misdemeanor death by motor vehicle is the unintentional killing of another human being as a result of a violation of a law applying to the operation of a motor vehicle," Lock says.

    Lock was almost affected by the incident himself. Lock's 13-year-old daughter was about 20 yards away from the crash. She was not hurt.

    Lock says he will not make a decision until the investigation is completed in one to two weeks.

    Reporters: Brian Bowman, Todd Hauer, Ericka Lewis and Yvonne Simons

    OnLine Producers: Julie Moos and

    Kamal Wallace

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