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Friends grieve after another stunning death at AHS

It was the first day of school, and McKenzie Baratta decided to sit out a game of dodge ball. Sports aren’t really her thing, and besides she didn’t really know anybody at Ashland High School after transferring from Cascade Christian.

She was standing on the sideline all alone when Makalyn Starkweather and Samantha Myler approached. Baratta recognized Starkweather, known as Mak, but had never met Myler. Starkweather and Myler welcomed Baratta to Ashland High and invited her to join them for lunch. It was the first of many lunch breaks the three sophomores spent together.

“At first I was really scared to come to the new school because I wasn’t sure if I’d make any friends,” Baratta said, “so when Sami and Mak came and asked for me to sit with them at lunch I felt really relieved. I sat with them every day after that.”

Myler’s gift for making others feel important, her love of cats and her unique sense of humor were some of the things that friends say defined the 15-year-old AHS sophomore who died the morning of Thursday, Nov. 19, of natural causes, 17 days after AHS junior Michael Ivory died of an embolism.

Only hours after Myler’s death the school for the second time in less than three weeks announced the news in classrooms during seventh period and through its Facebook page, opened a grief room staffed with counselors from both AHS and local nonprofit WinterSpring, and provided students with information on the grieving process. News of the latest student death sent ripples through campus last week. Her friends say Myler was outgoing and well-liked because she was outgoing and had a big heart.

"She brought a certain light with her into class," AHS humanities teacher Aimee Antilla said, "and everybody around her knew it."

Ashland High interim principal Erika Bare said the counseling office was transformed into a grief room Thursday and was also used Friday, and was packed both days as Myler’s friends gathered to talk about their friend, share stories, draw pictures and/or write. Some of the artwork became part of a “memory chain” which is now hanging in a humanities classroom.

“It was a lot of supporting of each other and just wanting to be together,” Bare said. “As we look at the teen grieving process, what they tend to need and desire is to be with peers who are experiencing the same loss.”

A service for Myler will be held beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 13, in the Grand Ball Room of the Ashland Springs Hotel. Her parents say it is open to anyone who wishes to celebrate her life.

When teachers at the high school announced the most recent death Thursday afternoon the news was especially shocking for students like Zoe Lishinsky, a sophomore, who was friends with both Ivory and Myler.

Lishinsky said that on Nov. 2 she was sitting in her French class when her teacher stopped class to read a note she had been handed. The class went silent, sensing something important was about to happen. The announcement was that Ivory had died that morning, and that counselors were available for those in need. Lishinsky was stunned. She had struck up a conversation with Ivory in the AHS quad last year — a possible topic was Star Wars, one of Ivory’s favorite subjects, although Lishinsky can’t say for sure — and the two became fast friends.

When Lishinsky heard the news she ran out of the classroom. “I couldn’t take it,” she said, “and a lot of other people couldn’t either.”

She ended up in the school’s Mountain Avenue Theatre, where she stayed and mourned with a friend.

Seventeen days later, Lishinsky was in the same French class when Assistant Principal Jay Preskenis made a surprise entrance. Then Lishinsky noticed that two of Myler’s friends were emotional, comforting each other.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “And then (Preskenis) mentioned Sami and then everybody just lost it. Our teacher left because she couldn’t take it. Our assistant principal took over the class. Multiple people left.”

Lishinsky, like most of Myler’s close friends, went to the grief room.

“That was hard,” she said. “After a while I couldn’t be in such a sad place anymore so I left, and I met some of my friends on the quad who were also friends with Sami and I just kind of huddled with them for the rest of the school period.

“I almost found it unreal that two high school students at the same school died from natural causes in less than a month. I couldn’t believe it, Some other people couldn’t believe it.”

Starkweather, a 15-year-old sophomore, said she went to Disneyland with Myler in October and described her as “funny and sassy.” Skarweather also reiterated what Myler’s other friends said, that she was a cat fanatic who volunteered at SoHumane, a not-for-profit animal rescue shelter in Medford.

One of Myler’s closest friends, Starkweather was pulled from class by the dean just before the end of first period Thursday morning. She was escorted into a room with two girls, who also were close friends with Myler, flanked by one parent each. The three friends thought they were in trouble. When Starkweather’s parents arrived they were all told the news.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what to think,” Starkweather said. “I think that for about a minute I just sat there zoning out, not believing that she could be gone. Then my mom grabbed me and everything came flowing out. I couldn’t stop crying.”

Starkweather said she went to the grief room and is glad she did so. There, she and other close friends wrote notes and sketched drawings about and to Myler. And talked. Starkweather says she tends to internalize her grief, but added that the time spent in the counselor’s office alongside others who felt the same way turned out to be, for her, quite valuable.

Korrin Kenerly, 15, who was one of the girls pulled out of class during first period Thursday, has known Myler since they were both in seventh grade three years ago. Myler, Kenerly said, was a joyful spirit who was always looking for a laugh.

“She was super sweet, super bubbly,” Kenerly said. “She was always really happy, and she was always super excited to come to our table group and tell us random things that happened, or TV shows that she had watched or some funny photo that she had seen.”

The last time Kenerly saw Myler they were walking together from school — Kenerly to the bus landing and Myler to her car. Suddenly, it struck Kenerly that she had left her umbrella in a classroom. She didn’t want to go back and risk missing the bus, but Myler insisted.

“She’s like, ‘It’s gonna rain tomorrow, I know it’s gonna rain.’”

They waved goodbye to each other in front of the school, a casual sendoff. Kenerly says she still thinks about that last wave. The next day, Kenerly was at the bus landing again after school. Sure enough, it was drizzling, and she was reminded of her friend’s advice.

“I was like, man, she really held up on her promise. It was kind of one of those things like, Sami made this happen.”

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Joe Zavala at jzavala@dailytidings.com.