By the time the bell rang the morning of Jan. 7, Centennial High School already was buzzing. Something horrible had happened. The rumor mill had churned all weekend even as news reports were emerging. Students braced themselves.
"We have some sad news to share with you today," teachers told their first-period classes, reading from a carefully worded statement put together by the Howard County school system. Senior Benjamin Vassiliev was in a coma, breathing with a ventilator, after being poisoned with cyanide. His longtime friend, senior Ryan Furlough, had been charged in connection with the crime.
By mid-morning, more than two dozen counselors, psychologists and support staff from the county's school crisis intervention team filtered throughout the Ellicott City school. They hugged students. They listened. They sat with kids who wanted to eat lunch in the counseling office, just to be there.
Over the next day and a half, details would unfold. Furlough's interest in Vassiliev's girlfriend, the cyanide ordered over the Internet, the boys' playing video games all afternoon before Furlough allegedly spiked his friend's Vanilla Coke.
Then came the call from Vassiliev's mother. He had been taken off life support at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Moments later, teachers quietly interrupted their classes to tell students that the 17-year-old drama star had died.
It was "unfathomable," Centennial Principal Lynda Mitic said in an interview last week. "Everybody's still using that word."
Coping With Crisis In a post-Columbine, post-Sept. 11, post-sniper world, schools are finding that educating students is no longer just hammering home reading, writing and arithmetic. They increasingly must help students cope, as Mitic says, with the unfathomable.
In Howard alone, schools have shepherded students through a number of deaths in recent years, including car accidents, suicides and the slayings of two Long Reach High School students during 2001 and the overseas bombing death of a Howard High School student in Pakistan last year.
"Twenty years ago I didn't get as many referrals from teachers concerned about kids. Now -- constantly," said Al Silberman, a Howard school counselor for 21 years.
In the middle of a snowstorm, the county crisis team met on Sunday, Jan. 5, at Centennial for five hours to plan a course of action. Should they say Furlough had been jailed? Should they talk about the letter linking him to Vassiliev's girlfriend?
How should they tell the students -- over the public address system or in small groups? And how would they deal with the boys' closest friends?
The crisis team has 60 members, each assigned to a specific school but who often come together when a tragedy occurs. In the summer of 2001, not long before the terrorists attacks, the team put together a handbook. For just the first day of a crisis, there are 22 steps.
"It doesn't matter who is responding to what crisis, we're still following research-driven response," said Ivan Croft, chairman of the county team.
But crisis implies unpredictability.
School officials declared a snow day Jan. 6, the Monday after the poisoning. Though the school closing gave the team more time to prepare, it also was another day for rumors to spread among students. At noon on Monday, police called a news conference to announce Furlough's arrest. Reporters began calling school officials, students, their families.
"There was no way to control it," Mitic said.
About 7 a.m., a half-hour before school started Tuesday morning, Mitic briefed the staff in the choral music room. The statement she and the crisis team had prepared was terse -- just the facts, accompanied by a warning against speaking to the news media and where to go to get counseling.
"The most important thing is to be accurate and to give them information," said David Bruzga, principal of Long Reach who had dealt with slayings of two of his students, Ashley Mason and Andre Corinaldi, within 10 weeks of each other in 2000 and 2001. "Rumors can run rampant and create fear and uncertainty."
Peter Young, 17, a senior at Centennial and student council president, listened to the announcement in pre-calculus. His teacher then asked the class if they had questions. Everyone was silent; it was still surreal. A crisis team member sat in the back of the classroom, just in case.
Some of the hardest hit were the drama students, who were especially close to Vassiliev. He was supposed to play the part of Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" early next month and was a favorite in the tight-knit group.
"He always made me laugh," said senior Nikki Pannullo in a memorial put together by teachers. "But not the normal ha-ha laughter -- the rolling-on-the-floor, can't-breathe-for-10-minutes laughter."
About three dozen students closest to Vassiliev and Furlough were gathered in the auditorium on Tuesday morning. Mitic sat with them for two hours as they tried to make sense of what had happened. They stayed another hour after she left.
Meanwhile, Centennial school counselor and crisis team member Jenn McKechnie tried to handle the stream of students in the guidance office. By the end of the week, crisis team members had dispensed what Croft called "psychological first aid" to more than 100 students. There was shock, disbelief and sadness, McKechnie said. And then, there were her own emotions to deal with.
"It's very stressful for us. . . . We know the students, too," she said.
When the staff met Jan. 8 before school, rumors were circulating that Vassiliev had passed away. He had been in a coma for five days. But school officials were unclear about his condition and decided to tell students during first period that it had not changed.
Then, at 1 p.m., Vassiliev's mother called with the news of his death.
"You cannot imagine what a panic this was," Mitic said.
Although she was wary of sending students home an hour later with such bad news, Mitic said she needed to tell them what had happened. Members of the crisis team, who had left that morning, were called back to the school. There was no time to prepare a letter to parents. Teachers interrupted classes to break the news; Mitic told one class herself.
Peter Young said his band teacher was too emotional to read the statement, so McKechnie stepped in.
"It is with great sadness that I inform you of Ben Vassiliev's death . . .," she told the students "It is very difficult for all of us to face the death of a peer and friend. We are never quite prepared for a tragedy such as this."
The statement didn't mention that Furlough's charges were upgraded to first-degree murder and that he could face life in prison. Or that he was under suicide watch at Howard County Detention Center, waiting for a psychological evaluation. The kids already had enough to deal with.
The next day, the school sent a letter to parents with the visitation and funeral time. It also included ways parents could help children cope and the signs of grief, as varied as eating problems or lack of concentration. By lunchtime that Friday, a week after the poisoning, the county crisis team left the school again. At the visitation later that day, the line of friends and family snaked around the funeral home.
As she tried to recall the sequence of events, Mitic passed her hand over her eyes last week. "It blurs," she said.
Tragedy After Tragedy Constance Lewis, principal of Atholton High School, has been there. Last fall, one of her students committed suicide. In June 2001, minutes after the final bell rang on the last day of school, 17-year-old Daniel Ong died after his car struck a telephone pole. And in 1996, Lewis lost her own son, then 24, in a car accident in Florida.
When she learned of the tragedy at Centennial, Lewis had lunch delivered to school staff.
"Where are the people at Centennial right now? What are the kids feeling?" said Lewis, whose two children attended Centennial.
Even now, the memory of the deaths of the Atholton students is strong.
"Many of our students walking the halls are still dealing with the effects from losing their classmates," wrote PTA President Glenna Nyanjom in the group's latest newsletter. "They may need a special reassurance of friendship or support."
Croft, the director of the crisis team, said that students are encouraged to create memorials to help them work through their grief.
At Howard High School, a poem dedicated to senior Kristen Wormsley, the 17-year-old stepdaughter of an American Embassy engineer who was killed in a grenade attack in Pakistan last year, is pinned with a purple ribbon to the bulletin board above a guidance counselor's desk. Immediately after the girl's death, the school displayed a picture of her surrounded by red paper hearts and white doves and a bouquet of roses in a trophy case.
Students at Long Reach put together a "peace quilt" in memory of 14-year-old Mason. There's still a handmade shrine with angel figurines and flowers behind the Columbia Pizza Hut in the woods where her body was found in November 2000.
When Centennial student Tim Brierly died in a car crash the day after prom in 2000, his classmates made a video montage to show at graduation. The Glenelg High School football team still observes a moment of silence in the end zone after every game in memory of James Thomas Smart, the wide receiver who died in a car crash in 2000.
Bruzga, the principal of Long Reach, said that the deaths in 2000-01 colored the rest of the school year. Games, prom and graduation all became painful reminders of the school's loss even after the tragedies no longer dominated every lunchtime conversation.
"It's hard to evaluate when [the students] have worked through it," he said.
At Centennial, students last week filled two memorial panels with messages to Vassiliev:
"Like Billy Joel said, 'Only the good die young,' and he was the best."
"Until the day we meet again, in my heart is where I keep you friend."
"Rest easy, bro,"
In a black and white photo taken by his girlfriend, Vassiliev stares out from the middle of the panel. He is almost brooding, his hands together underneath his chin, every bit the serious student who wanted to read Faust and wrote a novella in sixth grade.
"Ben, I love you always, you know that," his girlfriend wrote next to the picture.
Due dates on projects have been flexible, and the boys' inner circle of friends can take makeup midterms if needed. There are empty desks in the boys' classes that teachers must decide what to do with.
But students are trying to resume a normal life, with college applications, midterm exams, the school play, Mitic said. The drama group began rehearsals again for "A Midsummer Night's Dream." A school alumnus will return to play Vassiliev's part.
"You would say, 'It's okay, kids are back in their classrooms now,' " Mitic said. "But at the same time, I know they're very stressed."
The school has not planned any memorials for Vassiliev, Mitic said. Maybe after midterms, after the play, the family, students and staff will be ready. But that still won't bring closure for most. Furlough's case is scheduled to go before a grand jury within a month.
"When I tell [students] senior year was the best year of my life, they find it hard to believe, because that time isn't a lot of fun for them anymore," Atholton Assistant Principal Celia Carr said.
That's not to say they don't have good memories or have learned a lot. Peter Young can now play the piano and euphonium and differentiate equations. But he has also experienced deaths of three students in four years: Brierly's fatal car crash in the spring of 2000, 16-year-old Robyn Weiss's suicide a few months later, and now Vassiliev. And when he looks back on high school, the most enduring lesson may not be found in a textbook.
"Now I'm going to try to do everything I can because life can be cut off at any point," he said. "I don't think I would've learned that" otherwise.
Staff writer Susan Deford contributed to this report.
Among the deaths of area students the last few years were: Tim Brierly, from Centennial High School, who died in a car accident in 2000; Andre Corinaldi, from Long Reach, who died in a 2001 shooting during a party in a Columbia hotel; Ashley Mason, from Long Reach; Daniel Ong, from Atholton, who died in a car accident in June 2001; and Robyn Weiss, from Centennial, who commited suicide in 2001.Centennial High School Principal Lynda Mitic, shown in an English class with Robyn Collins, has had to help her school recover from the shock of the death of senior Benjamin Vassiliev, who allegedly was poisoned by another student. Below, pallbearers carry Vassiliev's casket from St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City after his funeral Jan. 11.