Students, parents, teachers, police officers and other community members looked to the sky in silence as hundreds of yellow balloons slowly disappeared above Flowery Branch High School’s football field Tuesday afternoon.
People gathered to honor the memory of two Flowery Branch High students who recently died of suicide. The entire service was organized by students from the high school.
“We have people from our school, Cherokee Bluff and everywhere in the surrounding area just here to support this because these two lives just mean so much to so many people,” Ashlee Locke, the high school’s student body president, said.
The two students’ families and loved ones stood in the middle of the football field as others spread out on the track. Before releasing the balloons, Denise Ramsey, Flowery Branch High’s assistant principal, read aloud a message written by members of the student body.
“This is a hurt that is full, encompassing and affects our entire community,” Ramsey said. “During this time, we are committed to walking beside each other. We cannot afford to be strangers any longer. Be a friend and reach out.”
Over the next few days, she said Flowery Branch High will have a collection box for people to write memories of the two students who died.
Jason Carter, Flowery Branch High principal, described these past several days as the most difficult time he’s experienced in his 23-year education career. According to district officials, one of the student’s deaths took place on Feb. 3 and the other on Feb. 7.
“Our students are hurting, but I’m also amazed at their resiliency and how they are loving on each other and taking care of each other,” Carter said. “They’ve come together and become closer.”
For the past four school days, a team of around 10 Hall County social workers and specialized counselors have provided their support to Flowery Branch High students.
Courtney Newton-Gonzalez, Flowery Branch High counselor and graduation coach, said coping with the sudden loss of two students has proved “extremely difficult” for the school’s entire team, including teachers and administrators.
“As a counselor, this is something we’ve been trained on, and we’ve had a lot of education throughout our career about this,” she said. “It’s a day you never want to see. It’s been difficult, but I’m thankful we’ve had a team of counselors here, so we don’t have to deal with it on our own.”
Because of the extra help on hand, Newton-Gonzalez said the school has received enough support to not only have group counseling sessions with students, but also one-on-one time. She said the assistance involves counseling on all levels, including dealing with grief and anything else triggered by the students’ deaths. The services are available to those who attend school in-person and online.
Newton-Gonzalez said she wants to remind the district’s students that they can always reach out to a trusted adult in their school building for emotional support or have a friend walk them to a counselor’s office.
“Teachers are trained and know what to do,” she said. “All counselors in Hall County Schools are great, they all have training. We want to make sure you don’t have to do it alone.”
Hall Superintendent Will Schofield spoke on behalf of the system, offering thoughts and prayers to those who have experienced loss and heartbreak in light of the students’ deaths.
“It will be our intention to continue to focus on the socio-emotional health of our students and team members during this unprecedented time of anxiety in our community and nation,” Schofield said.