For many students and staff at Plymouth North High, this school year has been cloaked in a veil of seemingly endless tragedies.
The death of 19-year-old Cameron Groezinger-Fitzpatrick this month from a severe allergic reaction to a cookie that contained peanut oil marked the third death of a student or recent graduate of Plymouth North since August.
These events have prompted Superintendent Gary E. Maestas to declare this the toughest in his 26 years in education.
“The town of Plymouth, they’ve been tested heavily in the past year,” Maestas said. “Why does someone so young with so much life, why have they been called? That’s the struggle that a lot of people deal with.”
The death of Groezinger-Fitzpatrick, who graduated from Plymouth North last year, follows that of 14-year-old freshman James Ward,who was killed in December after being struck by a dirt bike rider while on an all-terrain vehicle. Just four months earlier, Chad Kierstead, a 19-year-old who graduated from Plymouth North in 2011, died from injuries he sustained in a single-vehicle crash.
If anything is to be gleaned from the darkness that has befallen the school and community this year, it’s that they are not alone in their grief, said Sean Halpin, director of student support services for Plymouth public schools. From holding fund-raisers to simply offering words of support, this town of about 57,000 has banded around the school and victims’ families, he said.
“It’s been an emotional year and it’s been draining,” Halpin said. “I found that the community has been extremely supportive. . . . It’s a large, spread-out community, two high schools, two middle schools, but when things like this occur, we’re all part of this town and want what’s best for the kids and families.”
For the families, some of the most touching tributes have come from classmates and friends of the three teens. Shortly after coming home from the hospital where his brother Chad diedafter the car accident, Nate Kierstead said, his best friend stopped by with flowers for his mother.
“That made her day,” said the 17-year-old senior. “My brother’s birthday was a month ago, and he did the same thing. I wasn’t expecting it.”
When Chad’s Plymouth North No. 22 hockey jersey was retired before a match against rival Plymouth South in January, Kierstead said, he’ll never forget how South players skated over to him to offer condolences and words of support.
Among those who provided invaluable support after Chad’s death was Groezinger-Fitzpatrick, who had played alongside the Kierstead brothers on the hockey team.
After Groezinger-Fitzpatrick’s death March 8 due to complications from his peanut allergy, Kierstead said, the grief he felt after losing Chad resurfaced. Kierstead channeled his sorrow to organize a memorial for Groezinger-Fitzpatrick at Armstrong Skating Rink and to be there for his family.
“Cam was one of our really good friends. He was there for me for what happened to me, so I was there for his family,” Kierstead said. “I’ve been talking to his mom and he has a younger sister who’s around my age. They know that I know what it’s like. They know there’s still hope.”
Plymouth North principal Kathleen E. McSweeney said she is proud of the way “kids are rising to the occasion. They’ve been unbelievable.”
Immediately after Ward died from his injuries in the dirt bike collision, McSweeney said, classmates took to social media and urged everyone to wear green, Ward’s favorite color, to school the next day.
“I told the kids, if we lean on each other and support one another, we’ll get through tough times together, and we try to cultivate that every day in school,” she said. “To get through our school year and continue in a positive environment, we have to have certain expectations of each other and lean on each other through good and bad.”
One of Ward’s best friends, Sam Knollmeyer, was among those who started a Facebook page in Ward’s memory, where friends and strangers continue to share memories of the boy and words of encouragement for his family.
Knollmeyer and his friends designed green T-shirts and sweatshirts that paid tribute to Ward, an avid dirt bike competitor, and sold them, giving the profits to his family. They also organized a memorial ride in his honor, with the proceeds also going to his family.
The 15-year-old freshman said he copes with the sudden loss of his friend by trying extra hard at everything from school to snowboarding and dedicating his efforts to Ward. The two hung out all summer, seeing who could get the most air from a rope swing that hung over a pond near their homes.
“You spend so much time with him, then suddenly you don’t spend any time with him at all,” Knollmeyer said, adding that after someone took the rope swing down, he and Ward planned to put up a new one this summer. “He’s not going to be there to put it back up. I kind of feel like it’s unfinished business, so I think I’ll put that up this summer.”
Ward had planned to join the school’s lacrosse team this year at Knollmeyer’s urging. Knollmeyer, a goalie, said he has inscribed his helmet’s throat guard with “Rest In Peace” messages for Ward, Kierstead, and Groezinger-Fitzpatrick.
“It’s filling up too quickly,” he said.