OPOKU email@example.com_county.toronto.toronto_star 2005-11-18 published
Tragic deaths shock teens
Students react to accidental deaths
By Rosie DIMANNO
Teenagers embrace and weep. Some are angry and direct that fury at outsiders, anyone beyond the terrible closed circle of their grief, their incomprehension.
What a wretched week it has been for students and faculty at James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School. They are in need of tenderness and solace.
Already stunned and emotionally raw over the arrest of 14 black male students charged with sexually assaulting or harassing a white female teenager over a prolonged period -- police swooping down to remove the youths on Monday, allegations of racism swirling since -- these students were left reeling anew yesterday morning upon learning that another one of their own had been found dead in a car only a few hours earlier, apparently the victim of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
The deceased is Anna ZARNOCH, a 17-year-old girl in Grade 12, reported missing by her parents the previous day. Her lifeless body, along with that of a 22-year-old male, was discovered shortly after 6 a.m. in a Cadillac parked inside the garage of a Lansdowne Ave. home, where the young man resided with his family.
Autopsies were to be performed today but police believe this awful tragedy was an accident. It appears the couple had fallen asleep in the back seat of the vehicle, with the engine running. The keys were still in the ignition but the car wasn't running because it was out of gas by the time the gruesome discovery was made.
Det. Sgt. Scott GILBERT, of 13 Division, told the Star last night that the young man's mother had seen the couple going into the garage the night before. "She went back out at 1 a.m. to check on them... but she didn't have any reason to think anything was wrong."
The mother then went to bed. It wasn't until a friend of her son came by early yesterday morning, to pick him up for work, that the mother realized he wasn't in his room, sources say. That's when the garage was checked again and the bodies found. Police were called, arriving at about 6: 20 a.m.
It was all too, too much for students at McGuigan, a high school on Finch Ave. just west of Keele St. Girls sobbed openly as they mulled around the school's front entrance while teenage boys puffed furiously on cigarettes and shouted "Go Away!" at reporters arriving on the scene.
"Leave us alone!" several pleaded. "This is a terrible thing that's happened. It's not news."
Alas, it is news, however unconnected the two occurrences -- the arrests and the accidental death -- may be. It is a hideous coincidence or confluence of events, with many wondering what in God's name this poor school has done to be so stricken by calamity, with all the attendant media attention.
"I just saw her yesterday," said Elizabeth OGUNBOYE, 14. "We walked together right along this street. The next thing I know she's dead. She was such a nice, a really nice, girl.
"First the arrests and then this."
It took considerable courage for any of the students to speak with reporters, as other youths shouted at them to shut up, knock it off. A few of the teenage boys and one extremely hostile girl took it upon themselves to steer others away from reporters, who were careful not to venture onto school property.
"Anger, sadness, shock," said Jessica OPOKU, 14, describing the atmosphere inside the school. "Oh my gosh, all the pain."
Added Nakisha BEALS: "A lot of people are crying in there. Dozens of people crying. It's so tragic. I feel so sorry for the family. They didn't even know where she was, they'd been looking for her."
And, from another student who would not give a name: "It's been hell on Earth."
Students learned about the death of the 17-year-old girl shortly after classes commenced. Faculty had been summoned to a staff meeting where the principal is said to have broken the news. Each teacher was given a sheet of paper that contained a picture of the deceased and the few details then known, with instructions to tell their students what had happened. It was decided, after consultation with Catholic school board authorities, that this would be more appropriate than announcing the death over the public address speaker.
A fleet of grief counsellors descended -- enough to take every class under wing. Later in the afternoon, with the school's flag lowered to half-mast, a prayer service was held for the dead girl.
"It is with great sadness that we confirm the untimely and accidental tragic death of one of our students," Mary Joe DEIGHEN, spokesperson for the school board, told reporters, reading at first from a prepared statement. "The staff and students of James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic School have suffered a great loss.
"This school has been under a lot of media attention during the past few days. I am asking and demanding that the press allow this community to grieve quietly. This has been requested by students and staff of this community.
"This accidental death is in no way, in no way, related or connected to the previous experience... we've been experiencing at this school."
DEIGHEN added: "They're grieving, they're hurt. We're hoping to start a healing process. But it's going to take a long time."
Out of respect for the deceased, the school cancelled an academic awards celebration -- 116 winners -- that had been scheduled for last night.
It was only one more small way in which the lives of these students have been overwhelmed by recent events. Unhappiness and volatile resentment were already thick on the ground following the arrest of the boys -- some of them athletes -- early in the week, after a 16-year-old girl told a teacher, then the police, that she had been sexually assaulted repeatedly since September 2004. Those assaults allegedly occurred both on and off school property.
The boys, who were handcuffed in front of their peers when removed from class or the corridors, spent the night in jail and all were granted bail on Tuesday. Since then, much of the student body appears to have closed rank around the male youths, with appallingly little sympathy expressed for the alleged victim.
In this hard attitude towards the girl, the students seem to be following a tone set by some parents of the accused. One mother, after bailing out her son, complained loudly that the girl had "been caught," suggesting she was a willing participant to whatever transpired, as some sort of 16-year-old predator.
Several parents, fiercely protective of their sons, have also lobbed accusations of racism and racial profiling by police, because all the accused are black and the alleged victim is white. Police adamantly deny this.
It seems not to have occurred to anyone that, if there were any racism at work in this alleged matter, it might be of the reverse variety -- a white girl allegedly victimized by a large number of black youth.
Four were charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement and 10 with criminal harassment. Two females have also been charged with making threats. Because of their age, none can be identified.
Parents are also livid over how the arrests were conducted, claiming they were not informed beforehand, with some further accusing the school of not protecting their kids, permitting them to be humiliated in front of other students. These issues were among the subjects of a tense meeting with school and police officials on Wednesday evening, attended by about 250 parents.
All the boys have been suspended from school and ordered to give up their cellphones and pagers, pending trial. They will be permitted to attend classes at any other school that might accept them.
The girl has not returned to class.
It doesn't take a scholar to see why.
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