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Dust clouds roll across drought-ridden fields near eastern Colorado’s Lamar in spring 2013. (Jane Stulp, Fresh Water News)

Teachers in a tiny, southeastern plains town where five students died as the result of a car crash were attempting to return to normal learning this week, even as the grief that crushed the community will linger for much longer.

“It’s not something that is ever going to leave our thoughts,” Wiley School District Superintendent Jeff Bollinger told The Colorado Sun. “We still have to continue on.” 

Four teenagers died the night of the crash, Sept. 8. A fifth student who had been hospitalized since died Friday. All were students at Wiley, which has about 50 high schoolers and about 260 total students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The town near Lamar is not planning a community-wide memorial service, but instead there are five separate funerals. Those who died were Hunter Ronald Comer, 14; Cait Zordel, 15; Braden Black, 15; Xander Sharpe Rowan, 16; and Martin Roman, 16. 

The five were riding in a Ford Explorer in Prowers County south of Wiley. The Colorado State Patrol said the 16-year-old driver ran a stop sign at U.S. 287 and Prowers County Road 196 and was struck by a truck with a trailer.

Classes at Wiley were canceled the morning after the crash, but the school was open for students, teachers and community members to grieve together. The district doesn’t have a counselor on staff, but has a social-emotional coordinator. Local BOCES, or Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, dispatched grief counselors and a hospice program called “Good Grief” also sent help. 

Wiley held classes last week, but not a regular schedule. Mostly, students and teachers helped each other process the loss. Anyone who needed to leave class to cry or go home was allowed to do so. For teachers, one of the hardest parts has been setting aside their own grief to help kids handle theirs, Bollinger said. 

“My staff was incredible because we all knew that we needed to be there for our kids,” he said. “In some instances, we needed to put our grief aside. All staff was allowed any time they needed, whether they needed five minutes or a day or two days. Most of the staff was able to be there for our kids.” 

The district also resumed sports games last week. “Although that was difficult for students and coaches, we believe that it was part of the healing process,” the superintendent said. 

High school sports are where the tight-knit community comes together, he said, and at various games on the Eastern Plains, attendees have honored the crash victims. It’s not uncommon in Wiley to see 400 people at a high school softball game, while in other small towns the crowd might number 10 or 20. “Most of the community knows our kids,” he said. “They’re involved with our kids even if they are not their own kids.” 

Bollinger, who is in his second year at Wiley and previously was a superintendent in Kansas and other small Colorado districts, said he has never worked at a district dealing with a crisis “of this magnitude.” 

“It’s truly tragic,” he said. 

Going forward, the district intends to allow staff and students to take time to grieve for as long as they need, Bollinger said. 

After Braden’s death last week, his family sent a message through UCHealth, where the teen had been hospitalized because of his injuries. 

“Please keep all of the families who are suffering from the loss of their children in your thoughts and prayers,” they wrote. “Please also pray for our school community.” 

Under Colorado law, new drivers are not allowed to have any passengers in their vehicle. They are allowed one passenger after they’ve had a license for six months.

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...