Tragedies involving students over summer vacation can still affect kids when they return to campus in the fall, according to school officials who are working this week to alert teachers and staff about the death of a 14-year-old Santa Rosa girl.
Rincon Valley Middle School Principal Matt Marshall sent out a staff-wide email and activated an emergency phone tree to let school staff know of the weekend death of Takeimi Rao who had just completed her eighth-grade year at the middle school.
Rao was found dead on her bedroom floor Sunday morning after hosting a sleepover for three friends during which investigators believe the girls drank soda spiked with vodka.
Rao's death marks the second time in less than a year that the eighth-grade class at Rincon Valley Middle School has lost a student.
Chris Pierpoint, a gifted student and talented athlete, died in November after suffering a brain hemorrhage while he slept.
In that case, therapy dogs and counselors were deployed to the Badger Road campus, while school officials set up tables for flowers, cards and mementos for a lost friend.
While the news and circumstances of Rao's death have ignited threads of Internet conversation on Facebook and other sites, when a student dies during the summer, there is no obvious place for classmates to gather to remember their friend and share their feelings other than a more formal funeral service.
Marshall has offered to open the doors of the Badger Road campus this week as a gathering place for Rao's friends.
"I have offered the school and facilities to facilitate anything I can," Marshall said, noting that no schedule has been set.
In addition to informing staff members, teachers will also be asked to be on the alert for signs of distress among Rao's friends when classes start up again in August, Mark Klick, assistant superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools.
"When it happens in the summer, the counselors become involved," he said. "The counselors would start to work with students in the know. These types of things tend to come forward rather quickly."
Officials this week expressed hope that Rao's death will inspire parents to have conversations with their children about the dangers of alcohol.
"Hopefully the interest part of it would open the eyes of parents so they can talk openly (about) drinking and experimenting with substances," said Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Lorenzo Due?s. "This is the consequence of what could happen."
At Rincon Valley Middle School, the school has a robust alcohol drug awareness program which includes a program called "Red Ribbon Week," Marshall said.
For the program, a graveyard is set up in the quad and participating students are pulled out of class every few minutes, to illustrate the number of deaths that occur to drugs and alcohol abuse. The kids are then placed in the quad, next to the grave markers with their faces painted white.
Parents too, need to keep talking with their kids about alcohol and drugs, Due?s said.
"Kids are going to sneak and do what they do," he said. "But they are not knowledgeable. They don't know."