A storyteller's story

Violence and tragedy: Kids find ways to cope

In print on August 23, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Byline: By Akilah Johnson Sun Sentinel
Date: Friday, May 14, 2010
The tragedies are over, but the mourning continues.

In the past 18 months, South Florida students have been rocked by a rapid succession of shooting deaths, fatal stabbings, drownings, brutal beatings and burnings.

Their schools sent in crisis teams, helping them to express feelings, create safe spaces to share memories, and simply listen. But healing is a slow process and coping takes many forms. Here are the stories of five teens who either lost a friend or witnessed someone’s death.
Girl, 15, is fatally shot in a Dillard High School hallway in November 2008.

Deandrea Franklin’s life changed in an instant. New to Dillard, the sophomore was eating lunch by herself when she looked up to see a bunch of kids near the vending machines, heard a “pow” and saw a girl fall to the ground.

Deandrea, 16, went to check on the girl. She bent over and touched 15-year-old Amanda Grace Collette, who later died at Broward General Medical Center from a single gunshot wound.

She didn’t know Amanda or the girl who shot her, Teah Wimberly. But she was branded a snitch for telling police what she witnessed – an event that haunted Deandrea’s dreams for months.

“I would get up in the morning, and everything would be great,” she said of one recurring dream. “I would tell my mom ‘bye’ and that I love her and I would go to school and they would be like, ‘You the one who told on Teah,’ and they shoot me and I never come back.”

School counselors let students express their grief by leaving messages on the wall near the spot where Amanda was shot and on posters resting under the flag pole. They held assemblies to address fears, but Deandrea was pulled out of one when “the people from the court came to talk to me.”

“It was pure pressure,” she said of the subpoenas and being pulled out of class to speak with detectives. “I wish they would have come and asked me, ‘Do you really want to go through this?’ And tell me, ‘It’s OK. It’s not your fault.’ ”

That didn’t happen.

Still, Deandrea said she would testify again if a situation ever called for it.

“That’s why a lot of stuff goes on, because you can’t open your mouth,” she said. “I’d do it again.”

Dancing is how Shanteria Stokes, a shy 17-year-old, expresses her feelings of loss. It’s how she connects with Amanda, a ballet dancer in the performing arts magnet program.

Amanda was Shanteria’s best friend. She still speaks with Amanda’s parents and takes her friend’s little brothers to the movies or arcades. Being around Amanda’s family helps fill the void.

“I’ve had a lot of problems since it happened,” she said.

She walked around in a daze and kept to herself. “I used to sit on the computer and cry. I was on my MySpace, and I was on her MySpace. Then I was on YouTube and stuff. It was everywhere.”

The school gathered students in the recital hall, but she doesn’t remember what was said, only that the superintendent was present. “It was like I was listening, but I was in another world.”

Shanteria didn’t talk to grief counselors at school, choosing instead to speak with her mom when she needed to confide in an adult.

She wanted to leave Dillard, get away from the memories. But Amanda “was in dance, and it inspired me to stay here. It was just like her spirit is just here.”
Two girls from Loggers Run Middle School, west of Boca Raton, die from carbon monoxide poisoning during a sleepover in May 2009.

Caitlin Brondolo and Amber Wilson dressed up as a cat and a mouse for what would be their last Halloween, celebrated at friend Zachary Winograd’s house. Zachary, 13, was a werewolf.

Months later, Caitlin and Amber died during a sleepover at Amber’s house. Amber’s mom accidentally left her SUV running in the garage, and the Loggers Run Middle students died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

“I couldn’t believe it. I just sat there for a minute when my dad told me. I thought it was just a really bad dream that went on forever,” Zachary said.

Looking at Halloween pictures helps him cope. Spending the holiday together was a tradition for Zachary and Caitlin, who went to elementary school together but different middle schools. He attends Eagles Landing, also west of Boca Raton.

“I went to school and, like, I didn’t really show that I was kind of sad,” he said. “I just kind of kept it back and tucked inside me.”

Then the school’s guidance counselor called him to her office.

“When I started talking, I broke down. I was literally making a river in her office, but she gave me a list of things I could do to feel better.”

The list included things like watch movies, listen to music and go to places that reminded him of Caitlin. He choose to make a scrapbook, which he said was “hard. I kind of told myself not to cry, but I was looking at pictures of her and I couldn’t believe she was gone forever.”

Zachary also decided to channel his pain by starting a carbon monoxide campaign as his Eagle Scout project.

“The hardest part is to tell people how they died,” he said.
Three teenagers from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland die in a canal on homecoming night in November.

It’s been six months since Anthony Almonte, Robert Nugent, Sean Maxey, all 16, and Evan Sinisgalli, 15, got into a fender-bender along University Drive and then backed into a canal in Coral Springs.

Everyone died except for Evan. And while Danny Ortiz is happy Evan lived, he can’t help but be angry that Anthony died. Anthony, or Ant as Danny and just about everyone else called Almonte, was his best friend.

Evan is in Danny’s English class and seeing him is still painful.

“Knowing an hour before the accident I was with [Anthony],” Danny said. “Not even an hour, like 15 minutes. Knowing, if we never went to that party nothing would have ever happened.”

Danny said he doesn’t talk about what happened that night. He made one exception: Anthony’s mother, Donna Uzzi. “I feel like she needed to know the truth – everything that really happened.”

Danny saw the grief counselors, who spent weeks on campus after the accident. The counselors, he said, just talked to the kids, saying “it would be all right and stuff.”

It didn’t help. Not much does except being with friends.

“I can’t be in class while they talk about it. I usually just walk out,” Danny said. “I just get, like, all sad and, like, depressed.”

He used to talk to his girlfriend about it, but they broke up. So few people know that driving at night still makes him anxious. Or that he has trouble sleeping.

“There’s that moment before you go to sleep and everything comes to mind,” he said. “I just want people to make smarter decisions, especially when driving. A lot of people haven’t learned from this.”

While Danny avoids discussing the accident, talking is how junior Samantha Smukler, 16, works through her grief.

“Even though it hurts me to talk about it, I know it will help people,” said Samantha, who grew up with Anthony.

Her message is simple: Don’t drink and drive.

“Before I didn’t care what I did,” she said. “If someone was, like, under the influence, it wasn’t a big deal. But now I would never, ever get into a car with someone under the influence.”

Samantha didn’t go to the party on homecoming night, “which I am very thankful for.” She learned about the fatal accident the next morning, when a friend called just before 8:30 a.m. “I ran through my house crying.”

“I went to school that first day. We all went to school that day,” she said. “One of the grief counselors looked at the other and said, ‘Nothing we do will make you feel better,’ and we were like, ‘Nothing they say will make us feel better.'”

She still cries, her grief compounded by the recent death of another friend because of drunken driving.

“I think about them every, single day,” she said. “I’m really scared of losing more people.”

She sticks close to the friends she has, the friends they all shared. Each month they gather at the crash site, now decorated with pictures, teddy bears and messages. Rosaries hang from three “Drive Safely” signs.

This monthly gathering serves as source of comfort for Samantha, as does “talking about it. I will make people aware of what’s going on.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@sunsentinel .com or 954-356-4527.

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