When a child is murdered, how do schools cope? Lockwood has some answers.

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
Rory Davis had Anthony Chen in his classroom for more than a year. Davis still keeps a memory box in his classroom that honors Anthony, seen at left, and his younger brother, Eddy, who was a second-grader. 

GUILDERLAND — Guilderland Elementary School Principal Allan Lockwood is thinking about the unthinkable.

He was at the school’s helm when two students were murdered five years ago. Lockwood believes school districts can and should plan for how best to handle violent deaths where students die off school grounds.

 Lockwood is currently at work on revising a doctoral dissertation he has written on the topic of what schools can do to help staff, students, and parents recover from the murder of a student that happens outside of school. 

Lockwood has firsthand experience with this topic. On Oct. 8, 2014 of Anthony Chen, a fifth-grader at Guilderland, and his brother, Eddy, a second-grader, were murdered in their Western Avenue home along with their parents. The family had immigrated from China, and their quadruple homicide remains unsolved almost five years later. 

The school district experienced another violent loss this year when Caitlin Melville, the mother of Westmere Elementary School kindergartner Sasha Melville, 5, shot her daughter and herself at their Schoolhouse Road home. 

Lockwood is a student in Sage College’s doctoral program in educational leadership designed specifically for school administrators. He noted that other Guilderland faculty members are currently in the program as well, listing Amy Hawrylchak, an assistant principal at the high school, and Beth Bisnett-Jenks, instructional administrator for math, science, and technology at Farnsworth Middle School. Beth Bini, principal of Westmere Elementary School, earned her doctorate through the program as well, Lockwood said. 

His advisor told him to pick a topic for his dissertation that would be meaningful to him, because he would be spending a lot of time on it, Lockwood said. 

“This was meaningful to me because I was the building leader when Anthony and Eddy Chen were killed,” he said. 

“When something like this happens, it’s a traumatic event for students, staff, and administrators,” Lockwood said. 

It happens far more often, he said, than do school shootings. He cited figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 2017, showing that 24 students died in school shootings across the country that year, while 1,649 were murdered outside of school, making violent deaths outside school more than 68 times more common that year than school shootings. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, murder is usually the third or fourth — in some years, the fifth — most common cause of death for school-age children across the country. In New York State, it has been one of the top five causes of death for this age group in all but three years since 2007, according to the state’s Department of Health; the CDC figures would include school shootings among the homicides of youth. 

Lockwood noted that the CDC figures include young people through the age of 24, “which makes it hard to compare,” and that the numbers from the state’s Department of Health include young people killed by law-enforcement officers in incidents termed “legal intervention.” 

But it’s safe to say that student murders outside of school are far more common than school shootings. 

Lockwood described the Chen boys’ deaths as “pretty devastating for the entire school.” 


Need for a plan  

Lockwood studied four schools in upstate New York, he said, but was unable for reasons of privacy to specify the schools or talk about the deaths. 

The students killed were of different ages and grade levels, he said. Some were killed by family members, and some were victims of random crime. 

Guilderland and Westmere are not included in his research, he said, because he is too close to those schools’ experiences. 

What his research showed him, Lockwood said, “was that you should think about this ahead of time.” 

None of the building leaders he spoke to had. None had a plan in place for recovery, he said, which he defined as returning the building to the work of teaching and learning.

“Everyone was in the same position that we had been: Suddenly having this tragedy shake your entire community and not having a plan in place to address it,” he said.

A plan would keep administrators from having to think through all of the different aspects of a crisis as it happens. This is especially true, he said, for the murder of a student, which comes “out of the blue” and leaves the school community with a sense of trauma. 

Guilderland teacher Lois McDonald, advisor to the Garden Club, which both Chen boys belonged to, earlier told The Enterprise about this sense of trauma, for an article on memorials for the Chen boys. 

“This awfulness just descended on our school,” she said. “Everybody was confused, devastated. Like you’re in this bubble.” 


What schools can do 

One thing that schools can do, Lockwood said, is establish relationships with a hospice or a similar outside resource network that can help children deal with grief and trauma. 

“Every building leader I have talked to ended up talking to hospice,” Lockwood said. 

Bereavement counselor Emma Pile of Community Hospice said that, when working with children, it’s important to be clear and direct. Her organization will use the word “died” rather than “passed away,” which can be unclear, she said, and will even talk with younger children about the dying process.

“We always advise remaining truthful and making it concrete, but not going into detail,” she said. They also correct misinformation, Pile said, including any that might come from “magical thinking.”

It’s common for children to feel guilt, she said. Perhaps they were angry at, or said something bad about, a friend. If that friend then dies, she said, they may believe that they caused the death. 

Lockwood said that another thing schools can do is to think, in advance, about a tiered response. 

“In an elementary building like ours, you don’t really want to have a school assembly and give everybody the same message, because you have kindergartners who don’t know anything about what happened, and you don’t want to cause trauma,” he said. 

The response should mirror, he said, the ripple effect that the event has: It hits deepest in the classroom of the slain student, with friends and classmates and teachers, and expands out to the rest of the school community.


Lack of information

The deaths of the Chen family happened early on a Wednesday morning and were discovered later that day, so school officials had to work fast to formulate a response, Lockwood said, “in an environment where we didn’t have much information, either.” 

Many school districts report that same experience, Lockwood said, of having only limited information amid ongoing police investigations. 

At Guilderland Elementary they relied, Lockwood said, on a statement the New York State Police had issued, saying they were investigating a quadruple homicide, but that the community was safe. 

“It was a difficult thing to share with students — that we believe something very bad has happened, but that the police tell us we are safe.” 

On Thursday morning, Lockwood said, the district still did not have confirmation of who had died. He told The Enterprise at the time that on Thursday of that week, “We knew very little except the news of a quadruple homicide at the address of one of our families.”

Early that Thursday morning the school had its first-ever all-staff meeting to inform everyone of the crisis, Lockwood said at the time.

“We were bracing for the worst … We had no idea what to expect for our students … We planned to have enough people,” he said then. Social workers and psychologists were called on from across the district. “We talked about what they could say as students came in if they had concerns,” he said.

Police at a Guilderland Town Hall press conference on that Thursday morning released the genders and ages of those who had been killed.

Teachers started riding buses on the Thursday afternoon runs home and continued each morning and afternoon through the next week.

When more information was released by police about who had been killed, “It helped a lot,” said Lockwood at the time. “Students could start to process this tragedy, being able to talk about the students and confirm it” although he conceded, “It was painful and difficult.”

Superintendent Marie Wiles confirmed this week that the district released the names of the children on Saturday, Oct. 11. She said she worked directly with the Guilderland Police Department to get the OK to release the names. Names of the adult victims had been released by police on Friday afternoon with no further details.

Anthony Chen had been a student at the school during six school years, since kindergarten, Lockwood said. “We had to talk to everybody in fifth grade,” he added. 

“Intensive interventions” were done in the classroom that second-grader Eddy had been part of, Lockwood said, but then, beyond that classroom, staff took cues from students.

If officials learned that students in a particular class were talking about the murders, they would have a class conversation with them. “If nobody was talking about it, we didn’t initiate it,” Lockwood said. 

School officials sent a letter home to the parents of all students, offering counseling for any children who might be having issues or concerns.

“Since we lost Anthony and Eddy,” Lockwood said, “our district has been much more proactive in thinking about what to do.”



Timothy Murphy, a safety specialist from Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, has led the crisis team in each building through an annual tabletop exercise that, one year since the Chen murders, focused on dealing with loss. 

Murphy told The Enterprise that that exercise did not deal specifically with child murder, but was broader, about death in general, including that of any member of the school community, such as a co-worker, a parent, or a student. 

He used Guilderland’s experience as a “kind of case study,” Murphy said, and offered recommendations from the United States Department of Education on coping with the death of a student or staff member, which he said dovetailed with all the things Guilderland had done. 

In his tabletop exercise, Murphy said, he sketches out some of the things Lockwood’s team did to help students, including holding a meeting for all faculty and staff before school started the next day, to brief people; bringing in counselors; setting aside separate counseling areas for staff and students; having a counselor in the hallway in case someone broke down in a hallway. 

“Their situation was extreme, and they really did a nice job,” Murphy said of Guilderland Elementary’s response to the Chen murders. 

Lockwood mentioned one other thing that he had learned from his school’s experience of crisis. 

“When Anthony and Eddy passed away, we felt a lot of support from districts and schools around us. People reached out to let us know they were thinking of us. Since that time, we’ve done the same, any time we hear of a tragedy like that nearby,” he said. 

The school staff comes together to raise money and then make a gesture of solidarity — “usually trays and trays of bagels and coffee and a card saying ‘We’re thinking of you,’” he said. “That’s incredibly powerful to people in their darkest hour. It was for us,” said Lockwood. 


Westmere’s experience 

Sasha Melville was killed on a Friday, which meant that Westmere Elementary officials had the weekend to consider their response, Beth Bini, the school’s principal, said recently. 

Bini had experienced, as Lockwood did, a period of not knowing exactly what had happened, before Guilderland Police announced on Saturday afternoon that they were investigating a murder-suicide, and said that Caitlin Melville had killed herself and her 5-year-old daughter. 

On Friday night, Bini had heard that something had happened to a student at a home on Schoolhouse Road and had spent hours standing outside the police cordon, not knowing what had happened there, or to whom, she told The Enterprise earlier. 

Westmere’s crisis team met on Saturday to consider next steps and “how to prepare for Monday morning with staff, with students, with parents,” Bini said. On Saturday, she worked closely with the school counselor, Alyssa Hansen, and Sasha’s classroom teacher, Julia Shudt, to develop “talking points” for how staff could tell the children on Monday about the loss of one of the school’s youngest students. 

On Sunday, all faculty and staff were invited to come to a meeting as a school community, Bini said, and “of course most all of them came.” Meeting on Sunday allowed them, she said, not only to prepare, but also to process. 

“We had to come to grips with this tragedy ourselves,” she said, and they also needed to support Sasha’s teacher. 

Bini and the school counselor made calls on Sunday to the parents of every child in Sasha’s kindergarten classroom. Bini also sent an email to the parents of all of the students in the school, telling them what had happened. 

Lockwood had offered to talk with her if she needed anything, Bini said, and she did ask him for advice. He suggested putting adults on each school bus to help make sure that kids were not scaring one another with rumors or with information that was not age-appropriate. 

She thought that was a great idea, she said, and asked on Sunday for a volunteer from the staff to ride each school bus on Monday morning and Monday afternoon. 

“I didn’t think of that,” Bini said. “Who would think of that?” 

School officials decided not to use any words like “gun” or “murder-suicide,” in talking about the death, Bini said. 

“We addressed that we lost a child in our school community,” Bini said, but avoided talking about how she died. They encouraged children, if they had questions, to talk to an adult at home or an adult at school. 

Additional social workers, school counselors, and school psychologists were on hand to offer counseling to any children who had additional questions, she said. 

They did not tell children about the murder-suicide, but if some children knew what had happened, and asked how a mother could kill a child, Bini said, school officials told them that Caitlin Melville had been very sick and had had “a sick brain.” 

She did not want children to fear their own mothers, she said. So they emphasized, in child-appropriate language, “This mom had a sick brain; your mom’s brain is not sick,” she said. 

Sasha’s teacher was offered a school psychologist join her in her classroom to talk to the students, Bini said, but said she wanted and needed to talk to the children herself.

Instead, Bini said, a decision was made to bring a long-time substitute teacher, who was familiar to the children, in the classroom as an extra adult, just in case. The idea, Bini said, was to keep the day as normal as possible, while also being prepared to address whatever might arise. 

Shudt, the classroom teacher, and Sasha’s classmates created a beautiful tri-fold picture board for her funeral, Bini said. Shudt involved every child in making the gift, Bini said.

She had printed out copies of photos that included Sasha, and she let each child choose one picture and cut it into a shape — whether a heart or a circle or a square and place it on the photo board. Shudt gave the tri-fold photo board to Sasha’s aunt for the funeral, Bini said. 

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