On Tuesday afternoon, students at Wakefield High were told they couldn’t leave their classrooms, as paramedics rushed in to revive a student who was found unresponsive in the bathroom. He was taken to the hospital and later died.
On Friday, Chris Willmore, Wakefield High’s longtime principal, decided along with other school officials to cancel classes so students had the time and the space to process the double trauma. The school was still open for students and staff who wanted counseling or a quiet place to do work.
Like many educators, Willmore said the pandemic has ushered in a worsening mental health crisis, with baseline levels of anxiety and depression rising among students. While this is hardly the first time his students have dealt with tragedy, loss or fear, he said the pandemic has taxed their ability to cope. Allowing students a day off from classes just made sense, he said.
“People are so maxed out that it’s superseding their ability to process and cope and manage and navigate everything that’s going on,” Willmore said. “It’s just it’s a barrage of one thing after another after another on top of the pandemic. It’s overwhelming.”
Jasmin Cuttier, a 16-year-old junior, said she was in her AP Psychology class when the second lockdown was called. She and her classmates sat on the classroom floor for two hours, trading texts with panicked classmates in other parts of campus. On Friday, as she hung out with a friend at home, she was worried about all the work she would have to make up, and that this week’s incidents would cast a negative light on a school that she loves.
When she learned that a student had overdosed, “it was kind of shocking to find out that this was actually happening,” Cuttier said.
The decision to cancel classes at Wakefield High comes as schools across the country are reporting unprecedented mental health challenges among students, who are stressed not just by schoolwork, but by loss, poverty, gun violence and are recovering from the isolation and time out of the classroom.
It also comes amid rising concerns in schools about overdoses, as a wave of deaths connected to fentanyl-tinged drugs sweeps the country, although authorities did not identify what caused the death of the Wakefield High student. Parents and community members gathered at the high school Friday to show support for faculty and students, some of whom streamed in to the building for counseling.
“Clearly, they need to heal,” said Janeth Valenzuela, a former Wakefield High parent who remains connected to the school and helped organize the rally through a network of Latino parents. “We wanted to demonstrate and let them know that we are here for them.”
In Maryland’s Prince George’s County students have also died this school year from suspected overdoses. In neighboring Montgomery County, drug overdoses nearly doubled between 2021 and 2022, killing four young people. It led parents to pack a drug information session last week.
Friday, as students and staff came to the school to speak with counselors, a police investigation uncovered disturbing details about the man accused of trespassing on campus.
Police on Friday arrested Kenan Owens, 18, charging him with trespassing at school, stalking, removing the serial number of a firearm and allowing children access to firearms. No guns were observed at the school during the trespassing investigation Thursday, police added.
According to a search warrant application filed by Arlington police, three students and a teacher told administrators that someone had entered the building and was thought to be looking for a Wakefield High student. Police interviewed the student the intruder was looking for, and the student told them that Owens “wanted to fight [me] one-on-one.”
The student, who was not identified, also sent a text to an acquaintance, saying that Owens and “5 other boys claim there [sic] here looking for me … because 2 nights ago the boy u told me not to hang around got shot 7 times,” the application says.
Police took the young man home, but after he arrived, he said he saw Owens “sitting in a dark sedan along with another male wearing a black ski mask.” The student ran away, according to the application.
As they investigated the school, police reached Owens on his cellphone and tracked his location during the call to his cousin’s Arlington home, according to the warrant. An emergency response team arrived at the house after midnight Friday and took Owens into custody after nearly an hour of asking him to exit, according to witnesses in the neighborhood.
Two of the students who initially reported the suspected trespasser said they knew him to be a student at Langston High School Continuation, which houses the district’s alternative school. Police seized a “Wakefield student ID belonging to Kenan Owens,” according to an inventory of seized items filed with the warrant. Police also seized two long guns and a pistol, the document says.
Owens is being held in Arlington jail without bond, police said.