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Homecoming parade crash has major impact on counseling services


Pete’s Pet Posse dog Disco, a 3-year-old miniature Australian Shepherd, is part of Pete's Pet Posse, a therapy dog program created by Oklahoma State University.

Trevor Richardson was one of the first counselors to respond to one of Oklahoma State University’s worst tragedies. He remembers getting a phone call urging him to come to the emergency room, and what he witnessed there was nothing less than shocking.

Monday marks one year since the homecoming parade crash, and counseling services are preparing for a difficult anniversary.

Suzanne Burks, then-director of University Counseling Services, was on the other end of Richardson’s call. She worked with various families and victims in the E.R. that morning.

"I've learned that it doesn't matter what you say as long as you express that you care and that you're sorry,” Burks said. “Everything else can come from that."

After the tragedy, Burks, who retired in July, led the response effort, which included Richardson and fellow counselor Cindy Washington. Richardson, now the assistant director of University Counseling Services, sat with families and friends in the waiting room, including Bhardwaj Varma, the boyfriend of Nikita Nakal. Nakal was a University of Central Oklahoma student who died in the crash.

Burks and Washington were on staff at OSU during the 2001 and 2011 plane crashes, and they led counseling efforts in the aftermath. The response to the 2011 tragedy was “more directed” because of the training, pamphlets and experience the center had received, Richardson said. The Remember the Ten Run, which honors the 10 victims of the 2001 plane crash, donates proceeds to University Counseling Services for grief resources.

“We’ve taken these tragedies and tried to learn from them and respond in a more appropriate way with each one,” Richardson said. “Out of this pain and suffering has definitely come some growth, and we’re still becoming a better university because of it.”

In the weeks after the homecoming tragedy, Richardson and Pete’s Pet Posse members met with four offices directly impacted, including Parking and Transportation Services, where Niki Strauch, the mother of 2-year-old victim Nash Lucas, worked as a student-employee.

“Just when you think you’re prepared is when you realize that you’re not,” said Steve Spradling, director of OSU Parking and Transportation Services in an interview for a documentary about Pete’s Pet Posse's reaction that day. “I don’t think you can ever be prepared for the loss of a 2-year-old child.”

Spradling said it was fortunate Ann Hargis, wife of OSU President Burns Hargis, contacted him about visiting the department with Pete’s Pet Posse, and her dog, Scruff, was the first of the visitors.

“The employees of this department were suffering very badly, and they wanted to help,” Hargis said in the documentary. “Some were mad, some were in denial and some didn’t know how to feel.”

OSU Career Services closed its offices temporarily to set up station for counseling and pet therapy with the Pet Posse to aid the response effort.

“They just seem to seek out and see who needs love,” Richardson said. “Sometimes people will come in not wanting to talk with anyone, but they’ll spend time with the dogs and slowly begin to open up.”

Richardson said the Student Counseling Center saw an “enormous increase in numbers” directly after the crash. Other departments involved included Psychology Services of the Department of Psychology, School Psychology Center of the College of Education and Center for Family Services of the Department of Human Development and Family Science, as well as Bill Gentry, a psychologist for OSU’s Employee Assistance Program.

Other counseling included Stillwater Mental Health Professionals’ Larry Burns and Kathy Thomas, as well as therapists from the Warren Alexander Group. However, the main source of counseling remained at OSU as students and faculty were encouraged to meet with the various departments on campus. University Counseling Services and Career Services station saw Stillwater community members directly after the tragedy. 

“We have to be careful in situations like this not to just assume that everyone needs counseling,” Richardson said. “There was a steady stream of students directly after, and we were running at capacity. That’s when OSU and Stillwater showed their true colors because we had area psychologists and counselors from centers across campus coming in, and we were operating as one cohesive unit. It was definitely utilized extensively.”

Richardson and Lee Bird, vice president of Student Affairs, sent letters to affected departments about grief counseling for the upcoming anniversary.

“It’s important to go ahead and be proactive,” Richardson said. “This isn’t something we need to hide; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s OK to talk about it if you’re struggling. I think it’s important to know that it’s OK to be happy, too.

"Some people will think, ‘This is the first homecoming parade since the tragedy. Should I go? Do I need to be somber? What if I catch myself smiling, clapping or cheering?’ Everyone needs to know that it’s OK. There’s no right or wrong way to experience grief.”