Feb. 9, 2005 - Ironwood Ridge High School students are learning to cope with a painful new reality.

Jake Hrasok and Matt Ramsey are dead.

Students and teachers now are left to reassemble their lives and make peace with themselves and the situation, say counselors.

Information on who these boys were and why they took their own lives still is unfolding.

The boys were friends, according to Dawn Barkman of the Pima County Sheriff's Department. Jake was 17 and Matt, 14. They were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Ford Mustang at about 9 a.m. Feb. 3.

They each left notes, of which the EXPLORER has requested copies.

The sheriff's department closed its investigation once the case was determined to be a suicide, Barkman said.

With so little to go on, Stacey Tarquinio said survivors are left with a lot of painful, unanswered questions and, oftentimes, guilt. Tarquinio manages children's services at Southern Arizona Mental Health Center.

"It's easy to make sense of something even when it is a senseless death when you know why it happened," she said. "Someone was killed by a drunken driver. It's senseless and it's tragic and it's heartbreaking but at the same time, you know what happened and you can become an activist in some way. You can kind of wrap yourself around it; they were an innocent victim, that type of thing."

With suicide, the blame can be internalized, she said.

"A lot of times you're dealing with 'What should I have known better?' 'Was I not a good enough friend?' 'Why did they do that? They never showed us that. Or they did and I didn't see it,'" Tarquinio continued. "So you're left with those questions, those questions that you often don't have answers for. It does bring you around sometimes to that area of 'What could I have done differently?'"

Carefully calculated crisis counseling is critical to helping students cope with the loss of their friends and classmates, said Tori Bourguignon, president-elect of the Arizona School Counselors Association.

"It's very, very important that the community be given a chance to heal and to get whatever it is that they need in order to resume some sort of normalcy and get back to functioning," she said. "School counselors are there to help Š the school cope in healthy ways."

A team of five school counselors and psychologists, in addition to those already at Ironwood Ridge, will be on hand "as long as they're required," said Todd Jaeger, associate to the superintendent of Amphitheater Public Schools.

School counselors are a resource also available to parents, Tarquinio added.

"That school community will need to rally around its staff and students in order to heal," Bourguignon said. "School counselors are an excellent and open resource for students to utilize and we want to make sure that young people know that their school counselors are available to speak to concerning these types of things."

Beyond counselors, family members, parents and clergy - any "trusted adult" - also are valuable resources, Bourguignon said.

However, Tarquinio added that not all students will feel comfortable talking about this situation.

"Some kids Š struggle with that expression and it can take them weeks or even longer to be able to have that settle in to where they have put words to what they're feeling," she said. "Sometimes just listening to other kids can help you articulate your own thoughts and to know that you're not the only one who's feeling this kind of tragedy."

However, moderating the expression of grief is important.

"Sometimes we have a tendency to think that we somehow were responsible for that and that we should have known better," Tarquinio explained. "You want people to express that because it's so important, but you don't want people to really go there and take on that kind of guilt. They need to be able to process that out, especially the people that were close to these kids."

"No one person is responsible for someone else's death," she said.

One mode of expression she recommends is a project that would allow students to articulate their feelings in different ways - like art, poetry, writing or letters to the Hrasok and Ramsey families.

"Something that's a schoolwide or community-type project can be really awesome as a healing mechanism," she said.

That concept of community is particularly important when one considers students in the school who were not particularly close with either Jake or Matt.

Those students "are in the same community as they were, the same schools they were," Tarquinio said.

Jaeger said he did not know if any memorials had been planned, though it was possible Jake and Matt's names would be added to a garden planned for the school.

"With the last automobile accident, the parents of one of the girls that died asked to put up a memorial garden type of area that will consist of some trees and some benches, sort of like a meditation type of garden and then that can be added to with the addition of other plaques of other students," Jaeger explained.

With memorials, "the youth really have an opportunity to say what they feel and have opportunities to talk and to share, if they choose to, and to help empower them around the tragedy," Tarquinio added.

For the students at Ironwood Ridge, who have lost five classmates in the past 18 months, time also is cathartic, she said. "This is a school in a very short time that has a lot of grief."

"At that age you are very much attuned to your friends and your friendships and they are the most important things in your life," she continued.

As the students come to terms with their grief, Jaeger said the school will offer counseling for those who seek it, but also will work to provide a steady, stable environment for learning.

"Kids are quite resilient at coping with something like this and we've found that the best thing to do is to keep them focused on their education and keep things moving along in life for them," he said.

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