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Glenelg High School mourns, centers mental health services after two students violently killed

Howard County Times - 1/25/2024

Jan. 25—By Dan Belsondbelson@baltsun.com

January 25, 2024 at 12:56 p.m.

As Glenelg High School continues to reel just over a week after two students, a brother and sister, were violently killed, students and staff at the institution in rural Howard County have held small memorials.

Last week, Glenelg's student government asked the school to wear pajama pants for the second time in the span of a month. In December, it was for spirit week; last Thursday, it was because Hailey Zanski always wore them. Green or blue attire was preferred, the favorite colors of her brother, Braden Zanski.

Students heading to the high school for their midterm exams said that school has been different since last week — the tone has become more somber, and the siblings are no longer there. A Howard County Public Schools spokesperson said this week that additional mental health support staff would be at Glenelg High for "as long as they're needed" as students continue to mourn the loss of their young classmates, who were killed last week in what police described as a "double murder-suicide" that rocked the Western Howard County community.

Howard County Police said this week that they are still investigating the Jan. 14 homicide in which authorities believe Hailey, 15, and Braden, 17, were fatally shot by their father at their residence on the 14000 block of Triadelphia Road in Glenelg. Christopher Zanski then fatally shot himself, police said.

Investigators are not aware of any calls for service at the house prior to last Sunday, and the motive for the shooting is "believed to be domestic-related," a spokesperson said. Police have not yet determined how the 42-year-old obtained the weapon he used, but they did not know of any extreme risk protective orders preventing him from possessing one. He had no criminal history available in Maryland court records.

The children's mother, who court records say was granted a divorce from the gunman in 2014, is "shattered" by the loss, according to a fundraising message from her employer, a Howard County medical practice where she worked as an office manager. Centennial Medical Group leadership had raised over $152,000 by Thursday in an online fundraiser to support Megan Ryan with expenses for her children's memorial service on Friday, as well as mental health care and other related costs.

The medical group's managing partner and the fundraiser's organizer, Connor Ferguson, said in an email that the siblings, who were often seen around the medical office as they grew up, were "kids that all parents would hope that their children would emulate in both their behavior and kindness." He said their mother, whom he has worked alongside for nine years, has had "an incredible passion for working with her patients" but that caring for her children "is where she found her purpose."

"These circumstances are beyond comprehension, truly a senseless loss of life that has left everyone dumbfounded, souls shaken," he wrote.

Ryan and other family members did not return requests to comment. She is in a fragile state, and the thought of media coverage hasn't crossed her mind, Ferguson said.

Glenelg High's principal, Shawn Hastings-Hauf, declined an interview through an HCPS spokesperson, who said the school's leadership wants to "be sure they are focused on the needs of their students as they navigate this difficult time."

In a letter to parents dated Jan. 15, when schools were closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the principal said the school was "shocked and saddened" by the deaths she said were "especially difficult to understand or accept." Braden was in the 11th grade, and Hailey was in 10th grade, she said.

She wrote that teachers would have guided discussions about the "sad news" during their first-period classes and "give the students an opportunity to ask questions, validate their feelings and reactions, identify coping strategies, and share information on additional resources available at school in the coming days."

Every school community has or will experience a tragedy, and it doesn't take an event as traumatizing as Braden and Hailey's deaths to warrant a mental-health-centered response, said Emilie Ney, the National Association for School Psychologists' director of professional development.

That response should be focused on the whole school community — students who were close to a lost student, students who weren't, teachers, staff and parents, she said. There's also no one-size-fits-all approach to the grief journey of a school or a student, and no linear stages of mourning.

Many students are "simultaneously experiencing loss and grief... as well as fear" of violence after a deadly event unfolds in their community, especially in a small, tight-knit area where residents know each other well, Ney said.

Parents and schools alike should look out for behavioral changes, such as those that are connected to anxiety and depression, she said. Younger students might have difficulty separating from their parents and miss school. Some might suddenly stop doing an activity that they enjoyed. They could be spending more time alone in their rooms. Their eating habits could change. Grades could plummet.

It's important for parents to open themselves to dialogue with their children and validate their experience, Ney said. The Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a collaborative organization backed by Ney's group, offers advice on how — and how not — to have that conversation.

Some children are verbal and open to talking; others might be quieter and express their feelings differently — but above all, it's important for parents to validate "that it's OK for people to feel that way" and give them "unconditional, positive regards" while monitoring their behavior for signs that they need more support than what a parent can offer, Ney said. A lot of those services from mental health professionals are already available in school to "meet [students] where they are."

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