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Bennet Copes With Death, Roof Woes

Just two weeks into the school year, Bennet Middle School staff and students found themselves mourning the brutal death of a recent graduate, and shifting students and classes after another section of ceiling collapsed. Included: A description of how Bennet staff coped with multiple incidents.

Bennet Middle School took quite a beating during the first two weeks of September. Both inside and outside.

Another roof cave-in, causing an emergency class reorganization, and the brutal killing of a 15-year-old alumnus left staff and students drained.

"It's like we've been through the whole year in two weeks," Kathy Ouellette, the school principal, says.

LEAKS AND MUSICAL ROOMS

Long stretches of driving rain pounded the roof of the Barnard Building, until leaks began in several classrooms and part of the ceiling collapsed in one room. Photographs show wet papers, ceiling material, and equipment piled on the floor.

No one was injured and, within eight minutes of the collapse, about 600 students were evacuated from that wing and lined up in the gym. After a brief emergency faculty meeting, all of the affected academic classes were moved to the Cheney Building, supplanting the "specials" such as art, music, family and consumer sciences, and technology.

Those teachers put their supplies onto carts, and spent the day taking their lessons from room to room. No one could use the Barnard Building for two days, and several classrooms were unusable for more than a week. Another section of the building's ceiling had caved-in in July

Education World Goes Back to School

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio spent several days a month during the 2004-2005 school year with the Royal 7's, a seventh grade team at Bennet Middle School, a grade 6 to 8 school in Manchester, Connecticut. She spent time observing and participating in students' learning, and talking with staff about their strategies and perspectives on improving student performance. She is a graduate of W. Tresper Clarke Junior-Senior High School in Westbury, N.Y.

A BRUTAL DEATH

The upheaval came about ten days after James, a Bennet graduate who had just started high school, was run over by a driver who returned to James's neighborhood after a dispute with some other boys. After hitting James and dragging his body across the street, the driver backed his car over the boy.

The driver later was arrested and charged with capital felony murder. He could face the death penalty.

Since James had just started high school, Bennet students and teachers knew him better than the high school staff. "He was very friendly, with a big heart, and a big smile," Ms. Ouellette says. "The kind of kid who would pop his head in just to say hi. He needed to stay connected to adults."

A SCHOOL AND COMMUNITY IN MOURNING

On the Monday following James's death, Ms. Ouellette and several police officers went to the memorial community members created in James's neighborhood. She met with James's aunt, with whom he lived. Then Ms. Ouellette traveled to Hartford with a school social worker to meet with the boy's mother, to offer condolences and support to the family.

"We had a crisis team available, and counseling for students as needed," Ms. Ouellette says. "Many dealt with it in their journal writing."

Two weeks after the killing, signs of mourning still were apparent at Bennet. A girl walked into school wearing a shirt with James's picture on it. Notebooks, homework, and classroom assignments are being turned in with "Rest In Peace, James" and "In Memory of James" written on the covers and in corners, Ms. Ouellette says.

Many Bennet staff members attended the wake, which drew 800 people. Besides Ms.Ouellette, a number of staff members and students from Bennet and James's high school also went to the funeral, which was on a weekday morning.

The Bennet campus.
Click here to see a larger photo of the campus.

More students would have liked to have attended the wake and funeral. "Some students were angry, especially some eighth grade boys, because they did not get permission to go to the funeral or the wake," Ms.Ouellette says. "Some asked me to take them. Some left school anyway, and took the bus. I had to call their parents to come pick them up.

"There were some hard feelings, but I could not let them go without permission."

To help some of James's friends from Bennet feel involved in the grieving and farewell process, Ms.Ouellette asked some of them to write condolence letters to James's family.

She also brought some prayer cards from the funeral and gave them to the boys, and bought carnations in blue and white, Bennet's colors, and passed them out to James's friends.

"The boys took it very seriously," Ms. Ouellette says. "They wore the carnations the rest of the day."

(Editor's Note: All students' names have been changed)

Take a virtual tour of Bennet Middle School