Peninsula High School is still recovering after the unexpected deaths of two students in October.
Kyle Stillion, 16, and James Oatridge, 17, died in unrelated traffic accidents just days apart. Stillion was struck by a car while walking along Key Peninsula Highway on Oct. 5, and Oatridge was killed in a collision on Sunday, the 8th.
PHS opened its doors on that Sunday night to provide a place for grieving students to go. “The library was filled with grief-stricken students by 6 p.m.,” said PHS Principal Dan Goodwin.
In the wake of the two deaths, PHS faculty decided to make Monday, Oct. 9, a voluntary attendance day, with counseling and support available. Goodwin noted that the school district’s team of crisis counselors provided aid and was very helpful.
“It was abundantly clear that a routine school day was out of the question and that we needed to stop and tend to the very large number [of] grieving students and staff,” Goodwin said. “We had just had the wind completely knocked out of us and we needed to get our breath.”
On Oct. 9, about three-quarters of the PHS student body attended at various times.
“It was painful and surreal. Both James and Kyle were supposed to be in my AP (advance placement) statistics class this year,” said PHS student Samantha Moore.
Some students left early, some didn’t attend at all, and some met up outside of school to help each other process.
“It allowed everyone the choice to grieve in their own way and have the option for getting the support they needed,” Goodwin said.
In the following days, support also poured in from the community in the form of cards, letters and videos. Community organizations and local churches had special services, and students from Gig Harbor High School greeted PHS students on Tuesday morning with candles and signs.
“The outpouring of love and caring from students, PHS and district staff, parents and the community was truly heartwarming,” Goodwin said.
Both students were well-loved and are greatly missed by their friends and peers. Students recalled James Oatridge’s humor and positivity. “He was always really funny and very honest,” Moore said. “I just remember this beautiful friend with great hugs and humor.”
“Any time I would see him in the halls, he would nod at me or say hey; [he] would just make me feel better about my day,” said Gabe Fobes, a senior at PHS.
Friends of Kyle Stillion also remember him fondly. “He was a genuine person,” Fobes said.
“[Kyle] wasn’t like anyone else I ever knew. He was very different; he was really outgoing. He was always there for people,” said Zildjian Fuller. “There was a time my freshman year that I went into a deep depression, and he really helped me. He always talked to me, and was like, ‘Hey man, life’s good.’ He taught me a lot about self-worth and how you have to stay strong in hard times.”
Although this has been a difficult time for Peninsula High School, this experience has brought students together.
“[Monday the 9th] was just one of those days where people just got to know each other, helped each other, had a genuine experience of emotion. I thought it was a beautiful thing,” Fobes said.
“After they died, I realized that you have to cherish everyone, no matter the differences. You have to appreciate people, because it doesn’t seem realistic, but they could be gone tomorrow,” Fuller said.
Goodwin noted that this is a landmark year for the school because the class of 2018 is the 70th graduating class from Peninsula High. He said the school will continue to celebrate this milestone by shining the light on its “amazing students, staff and alumni” and that the “genuine compassion for others at PHS,” along with the talent and student pride, makes PHS very special.
PHS already had a rough start to the school year with a suspected arson that damaged a building and vandalism that included racial graffiti.
“We have been tested by a lot this first month and a half of school and it will only make us stronger in the end,” Goodwin said. “We are not guaranteed another day, and that is not an easy truth to accept, especially at a young age, but we are back on our feet and moving forward with even more purpose than ever.”