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Goodhue mourns death of student

Derek Strickland

The fourth-grade class at Goodhue Public School only has 37 students in it. So it's no surprise that the death of 10-year-old Derek Stone Strickland is affecting the close-knit school quite a bit this week.

"It's a pretty small class," Principal Mark Opsahl said. "We got to know each other very well."

Strickland died Friday evening while playing in his yard. Extended family said he became tangled in a rope swing and apparently broke his back.

"He's a great kid. Like all our kids," Opsahl said of Strickland. "Very athletic, very involved with sports."

On Monday, the school set up a "grief room" and allowed students time to meet with an in-building counselor or two part-time social workers, Supt. Robert Bangtson said.

"We tried to make it a teaching moment, what grieving is," Opsahl said.

The school worked with the students throughout the weekend as well. After learning of Strickland's death Friday evening, Opsahl notified parents of what had happened.

"I sent a letter out that night," he said.

The school already had scheduled a field trip to Target Field Saturday morning to see a Gopher baseball game. There were about 120 third- through sixth-graders and their family members signed up.

Opsahl decided to turn it into a trip for Strickland, who played baseball.

"We had two buses," Opsahl said. "The students got to decorate the buses with Derek's name, all of his interests."

Once at the game, the students had planned to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," during the seventh-inning stretch for Strickland and then release 17 balloons. Strickland's baseball number was 17.

But the game got rained out. The group improvised by singing the song indoors before venturing out into the rain to let the balloons go.

"That was a pretty emotional time," Opsahl said. "The kids got a chance to talk that morning. That really helped out. They had a day-and-a-half before they came to school Monday."

Once school started this week, the students were given the freedom to deal with their grief. But Bangtson said the school is now trying to get back to a normal schedule.

"The experts always say the best thing to do is (go back to normal)," he said, adding that the school tried to make Tuesday and Wednesday as routine as possible.

Bangtson said that the teachers and other adults in the school have been affected just as much as Strickland's classmates.

"The kids help the adults out too," he said. "The kids are kids, they just move on. Being busy and sharing stories is good too."

The fourth-grade class has been invited to attend Strickland's funeral, which will take place 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Goodhue. Burial will be at Oakwood Cemetery.

Students and their parents will decide if they want to attend, Bangtson said.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.