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Claremont High School community mourns death of friend, classmate

The Claremont High School community is in mourning after a student died early Monday morning at her home.

Cassidy Heller, 17, was found unresponsive in her home on the 2500 block of Nogal Circle in La Verne just after 7 a.m., according to Lt. Sam Gonzalez of the La Verne Police Department. She was rushed to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, where she later died.

The cause of death is still under investigation, according to the LA County Coroner’s Office, but Lt. Gonzalez indicated a possible drug overdose. A toxicology report is underway to determine what, if any, drugs were taken.

CHS Principal Brett O’Connor sent an email to parents and guardians of students Monday afternoon, noting that the school will have extra counselors on campus in the coming days for any student who requests emotional support.

“As a caregiver, guardian or parent, you are the most influential person in your student’s life,” Mr. O’Connor wrote. “It is very likely your student will talk to you about Cassidy’s death. Even if your student did not know Cassidy, your student might still have a strong reaction to this crisis.”

This generation of Claremont High students have lost a number of their classmates in recent years. CHS lost two girls in 2015. One student committed suicide while another—who’d recently transferred out of district but grew up attending Claremont schools—was murdered, with her sibling charged with the crime. Then, in 2016, two special education students died of natural causes. Cassidy’s death marks the fifth student death at CHS in under three years. This notion could present an emotional toll on students, which can manifest in myriad ways.

Kirby Palmer is a local therapist who specializes in crisis intervention and the treatment of adolescents. He works regularly with the Claremont Police Department as well as the Claremont Unified School District, where he leads the biennial Yellow Ribbon Assembly at the high school.

He told the COURIER that a death of a classmate is a tough moment.

“I hope when something like this comes up that it maybe gives kids permission to finally say ‘I need help,’ or families to finally reach out to say, ‘We shouldn’t stick our head in the sand,’” Mr. Palmer said.

Mr. O’Connor, in a phone interview, said students were “distraught, shocked and sad” about Cassidy’s death.

“As a staff we are all aware of the things that have occurred in the past, and we are absolutely trying to provide the best support we can,” he said.

Ultimately, it is a parent’s job to allow their child to open up in the event of such a tragedy, Mr. Palmer said, offering advice to parents on how to approach a child in mourning.

“Be nonjudgmental and non-defensive with your kids,” Mr. Palmer said. “Don’t lecture. Ask questions, and maybe even take the opportunity to share with your kids something about the way your life may have been affected by drugs or alcohol.”

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com