Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Murder-Suicide and the Things I've Learned

Hey. This is Ryan and this was one of the most difficult things I've had to write. I shared this to journalism teachers across the nation. I'm sharing it here to record it so I'll never forget my feelings. I realize it's Christmas and I'm sure Lish might be a little miffed I'm posting it before the Christmas letter. But, it happened. And I need to process. Here goes:

I have often read tales on a journalism adviser listserv (a service for e-mails that journalism teachers can write on) about terrible things that happen at other schools and wondered how those teachers got their students through such tough times.

On Friday, a man I teach with followed his wife to a local Walmart and shot her “lover” three times in the parking lot. He then circled around the victim and shot him one more time in the head. After a low-speed chase, police cornered him at an elementary school where he shot himself in the head. (It all happened around 8 p.m.) Teachers were notified via phone tree Saturday morning.

At first I assumed he was the victim as we weren't told the whole story. I called those on my phone tree and then my editors and told them the news. I told them I had pulled our latest edition and we needed to decide how to cover this.

I spent almost two hours straight on the phone as students and others called to find out if I knew any more. I didn't. Remember, I thought Keith (Matthias, my friend) was the victim. I called the bishop and told him and then the Young Women's president and told them to prepare for some upset youth at church the next day. I even planned a lesson on the church's view of life and death.

Then I read online on a news site the whole story. I about puked. I could not believe he was capable of something so horrible. It changed my whole plans to help kids deal. Then the calls started coming again.

By mid-afternoon, I was exhausted. I couldn't talk on the phone any more and Lish suggested we take the kids out to lunch and try to get away from all the death talk. She also informed me I would be leaving my phone home.

We went to Bajio (one of our favorite restaurants), but I was surrounded by people discussing the previous night's events. Again, I became sick.

When we got home, I had about 15 text messages and four missed calls. I returned them and tried to take a nap. Ally and Emma had a dance recital and I dreaded all the questions and accusations. Lish, my sweet Lisha, realized this and excused me from going. I am so grateful for her intuition. I stayed home with the boys and detoxed for a bit.

The next day at church, looks and whispers flew my way. I know they weren't talking about me, per se. But, then the flood of questions came. "Did you know he was crazy?" "Why would they hire someone so unstable?" "Did you know him?", "Was he Mormon?"

It felt like people were asking me about an internal family matter. I usually stuck to a set answer I had devised before church: "Keith was my friend and I am as shocked as you that this happened." That's how I left it. My bishop pulled me into his office and asked how I was doing. I kind of exploded. "How do you think I'm doing? A guy I work with just murdered someone!" Luckily, I have a great bishop who listened and then told me things I already knew. Don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing that. I needed a little reminder. I was angry and sad and confused. (I still am, a little.) I booked it home and spent the rest of the day locked inside with my family.

Needless to say, it’s been a rough three days. I taught in his room, thus had multiple interactions with him. Also, his son was in my speech class. It has been hard.

I’m writing this because I think it will help me process, deal and move on. The hardest thing I had to do was console the many students who called me at home on Saturday to discuss what we were going to do in the yearbook and newspaper and how could this seemingly mild-mannered math teacher murder someone. How would we cover it? What would we say? What would administrators authorize us to say? How are his children feeling? What was he thinking as he drove from Walmart? What would his students think?

We are a relatively close school in a very close community (albeit 50,000 people live here and two separate school districts). We haven’t had a murder in this community in three years and now it was someone I knew personally. And liked. And would never believe could do such a thing.

Luckily, we had the weekend to gather ourselves, in a way. Monday was still hard. I bawled in my first-hour yearbook class as I read the district’s prepared statement. We discussed what to do in the book. We’re still trying to figure it out.

I saw a school counselor and talked out my issues during second hour. I realized I had been so busy taking care of my students, I had not really taken care of myself. I bawled again.

Third hour newspaper was much better. In fact, teaching the kids about tact and journalistic responsibility seemed to help me cope with our loss. As a class, we wrote our own news story. The kids seemed bombarded by local media sensationalizing a man they had as a math teacher into a deranged monster. (I was also surprised how many kids read message boards on news sites! Some horrible things were being said and kids were upset.) They decided to focus more on how the school was working to assist kids and staff into dealing with the events that transpired rather the gory details (from a very graphic police report). It worked. We finished the story and gave it to the principal to read. He got a little emotional as he told the kids he was proud of their maturity and tact in dealing with this. (The guy has been under siege from the press.)

The kids (as I) are very proud of how they handled it. Three of my students were his neighbors. It was extremely hard on them particularly. The issue comes out tomorrow, but the staff members that have read it online have said they wish the local media could be as sensitive as the kids were. So, should we have talked about the crime? I don’t think it was right. Am I a bad journalist for not wanting to discuss the details? I don’t think so. Should I have put my emotions behind me? Probably, but the man taught right next to me.

So many times we are faced with tough choices as journalists – student journalists, even. But I think the protocol is to use your judgment in your situation. Every school is unique. I don’t think being a cold-hearted journalist is the right answer in every situation. I guess some of you may call me weak. Go ahead. But, I’d rather think with my heart.


Here is the news story that will run in tomorrow’s paper:

School and district offers support, help
Counselors will be available after winter break, provide number to ‘talk’
By Tiger Times staff
According to the Idaho Falls Police Department, on Friday, Dec. 19, Keith Matthias, a math teacher at Idaho Falls High School, allegedly shot a man at the Walmart parking lot on Utah Ave., fled the scene and then shot himself.

Students and faculty at the high school arrived Monday morning in shock. Administrators were ready to help. “We’re not going to focus on the individual act,” Principal Randy Hurley said. “Our main emphasis is that students and staff have the support they need so that they feel secure.”

The school’s three counselors were on hand along with a crisis team sent from the district to assist students and staff. “We are listening and giving support,” Danette Gneiting, a counselor at IFHS and high school representative on the district’s crisis team, said. “We provide a safe environment for students to go through whatever they are going through. We are also available to talk privately, if needed. We offer this for students and staff.”

“When situations like this happen, there are people in the district trained to help,” Gneiting said. “We will continue to train for these things, too. We have plans in place to deal with everything from something minor in the school all the way to a major crisis.”

According to Hurley, counselors will be available until Wednesday, Dec. 23, and possibly after the winter break. However, according to Gneiting, the school’s in-house counselors will always be available.

Former math teacher Tom Kohler will assume Matthias’s classes until Christmas break and possibly beyond that. “We’re in the process of looking for a full-year replacement,” Hurley said. “It’s too early to know exactly who will take over. But we are actively looking at a number of possibilities.”

Counselors also said there is a helpline available for those needing to talk. Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center’s emotional hotline is xxx-2270.


Brenda said...

Thank you for posting this... I read your blog often - I live in Idaho Falls and went to church with Lisha when I was a kid. Thanks for being so candid - this must be a difficult time for you and your family.

Scrappycook said...

All I could think of when I read this story was - what about his children? I cannot imagine the pain and disbelief they must be feeling at this time. I think you handled the article very well. It is not the act, but how powerfully that act will effect his family, neighbors, students colleagues, the family of the man killed etc. So many heartbreaking ripples originating from one decision.

sunnie said...

Wow, that's rough!

Sandi said...

People always look for someone to blame when these things happen. They assume that someone would have to be a deranged monster, and that it would be as obvious as horns on their head to everyone around them (employers, roommates, family, etc.) The thing is, nearly everyone fantasizes about doing horrible things, and at some point even gets furious enough to really want to do them. (I have seriously wanted to kill a few people in my life: a classmate bully and a boss bully.) We don't know why some people follow through when the rest of us don't, but since our feelings are all the same, why would the person look any different than the rest of us?

My first thought when I heard about this story through Karly's facebook page was "the poor kids of that couple!" I'm glad the school is being sensitive and helping everyone to deal with things. You are doing a great job, Ryan.

Ken Matthias said...

As Keith's brother I have been searching the internet since arriving back home after his memorial service on December 26th. This is one of only a few posts I have found that say something positive about my brother. He was intensely in pain over various issues in his life and felt the only way out was to take his life. Those who he left behind now have the responsibility of picking up the pieces and moving on. This is a horrific tragedy for his wife, children and the family he left behind.

Ken Matthias said...

As Keith's brother I have been searching the internet since arriving back home after his memorial service on December 26th. This is one of only a few posts I have found that say something positive about my brother. He was intensely in pain over various issues in his life and felt the only way out was to take his life. Those who he left behind now have the responsibility of picking up the pieces and moving on. This is a horrific tragedy for his wife, children and the family he left behind.

Shalah said...

Wow guys. Charles and I are catching up with your family on your blog and are so saddened about the tragedy you've experienced. We are so sorry for you, everyone involved, and the whole community. Not so awful as that, but Maran also had a tragic experience a couple weeks ago. Her gifted teacher at school (all day on Tuesdays) died in a car accident. So we've been dealing with some similar grieving. So sorry and we send our love to your family.

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