Gathering to grieve; 400 students, compassion fill Columbus East gym

Columbus East High School students are turning to each other for comfort, grieving the death of a sophomore honor student and athlete who died in a car accident.

About 400 students and staff members gathered to remember 15-year-old Abbott F. Garn, a member of East’s football and baseball teams, in a meeting that got underway before classes began Monday at the high school.

Columbus police said Garn was struck by a sport-utility vehicle about 9:30 p.m. Saturday in the 2500 block of Franklin Street and died about midnight at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.

Brandon Andress, who has been friends with Garn’s family for more than a decade, said the biggest thing the family wanted to communicate was their belief that the incident was an accident. The Gards do not blame their son’s friends who were with him when the accident occurred, Andress said.

Columbus police have said Garn was traveling with friends in a sport-utility vehicle when it stopped on Franklin Street near 25th Street. Police are trying to determine why Garn got out of the vehicle there. He was struck by the SUV as he attempted to get back in, said Lt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police Department spokesman.

The 16-year-old driver of the vehicle was identified Monday by Columbus police as Jonah M. Wichman, also a sophomore and a teammate of Garn on the Olympian football squad.

On Sunday, the teens who were in the SUV went to the Garn home to talk with Adam and Jackie Garn, Abbott’s parents, about what had happened.

“They came to the house, at different times. It was hard to be there, it was so moving,” said Andress, who was also there. “The boys were completely crushed and full of emotion and guilt over the entire thing and Adam and Jackie (Garn) just held them.”

The boy’s parents want to make clear that they hold no animosity toward others who were nearby when the accident occurred, Andress said.

“They want to emulate the love and compassion that Abbott had toward his friends,” Andress said.

Columbus East High School’s mantra to students is to take care of themselves, take care of each other and to take care of the school — and members of the 1,550-member student body were demonstrating the caring for each other Monday, said Kristin Schuetz, director of East’s counseling office.

As students gathered in the auxiliary gym, it was apparent they were watching over one another, said Larry Perkinson, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. employee and student assistance coordinator.

“You ought to watch these kids taking care of each other,” Perkinson said of what he observed during the session. “It’s what friends do. It’s what families do.”

Perkinson said he was seeing students give each other visible signs of support, including hugs.

“I’m seeing friends who are willing to sit beside each other without a word said. I’ve seen multiple kids trying to tell each other it’s OK to hurt and it’s OK to cry.”

East principal Mark Newell said what struck him about Monday’s school day was “the power of students helping each other.”

After some words from East football coach Bob Gaddis, Perkinson, Newell and Schuetz, the students divided into small groups and could stay in the gym as long as they wished to remember their classmate and to share their own feelings with their friends.

“Some were hugging. Some were talking. There were a lot of tears,” Newell said.

While addressing the assembly, Gaddis described Garn as a great friend to many people at the school and a great teammate on the football team.

The Garn family has been overwhelmed with the number of people reaching out in person or on social media to offer assistance, comfort and prayers, Andress said.

The number of students who attended Monday’s session at East was particularly comforting to the family, Andress said.

“One of the things Jackie said, as a parent, you always want your kid to be a good kid — one that makes a difference. They didn’t fully understand until now the degree of how he impacted those who were around him. It’s an overwhelming testament to his (Abbott’s) life.”

Perkinson said the grief being experienced at East is not just among the students, but is shared by faculty, staff and the wider community.

“It’s just hard to lose somebody,” he said of the grieving process that’s just beginning, and will continue for some time.

“I can read books and articles, and say this will last three years, or it could go on for a lifetime for some,” he said.

“A lot of times, in the first two weeks, the best thing to do is let people get back to a schedule,” he said. “They’ve got homework, classes, activities. That doesn’t mean these students aren’t hurting. And we’ve got adults here who have recently lost family members and a lot of these moments echo in a lot of hearts. We are telling students and staff we care about them, we love them, and if they need something, just tell us.”

Schuetz and other members of East’s counseling staff went to each of Abbott Garn’s classes Monday, reminding students and faculty that resources are available to them at any time.

Counseling staff also are volunteering to step in and lead a class if a teacher needs a moment to collect themselves, particularly those who were Abbott Garn’s instructors and coaches.

“We are kind of prepared for anything, because grief is different for everybody,” she said. “Sometimes a student may wake and say, ‘I’ll go to school and I’ll be fine.’ And then a song comes on, and there’s a memory, and that creates a burst of emotion,” she said.

So students have been told the counselors are available to sit and talk, for a minute of quiet time or for anyone that just needs a safe place to get through a tough moment.

Perkinson said he reminds those who are grieving that everyone is loved by somebody.

“We have students who were best friends, teachers and teammates — and every student has a favorite teacher, and every teacher has a student that they will never forget,” Perkinson said.

“I told the students today, particularly those who had just seen Abbott and talked with him before the accident, that he was with them then, and now he’s with them in spirit.”

Republic reporter Matthew Kent contributed to this report.

Tips for parents

Larry Perkinson, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. employee and student assistance coordinator, offered some tips to help parents talk with their children about grief.

  • Listen, acknowledge feelings, and be nonjudgmental.
  • Express your own feelings in an open, calm, and appropriate way that encourages your children to share their feelings and grief.
  • Some common grief reactions include decreased appetite, difficulty sleeping, decreased ability to concentrate, sadness and social withdrawal. Be understanding and tolerant.
  • A variety of feelings are normal. Be sensitive to each youngster’s experience, as there is no one right way to respond to a loss. Feelings and behaviors will vary and will change throughout the bereavement process.
  • Keep in mind that some children may have a difficult time expressing their feelings or may not feel comfortable talking at home or at school. Do not pressure them to talk. Some may prefer writing, drawing, listening to music, or playing a game instead of talking about their feelings. Provide opportunities to express grief through a variety of options.
  • Help bereaved youngsters find a peer support group. There will likely be others who have also experienced the death of a loved one.

— Information from National Association of School Psychologists

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.