The daily announcements at Toby Johnson Middle School were replaced Monday morning by the gentle voice of Principal Patrick McDougall telling students that one of their classmates had died over the weekend.
Aaron Nguyen, 12, fell unconscious at a practice at Joseph Kerr Middle School in Elk Grove with the 12-and-under BRANDED team of the Elk Grove-based Youth Basketball Development Academy. The seventh-grader couldn’t be revived by emergency or hospital personnel, according to Elk Grove Unified School District officials.
Many at the Elk Grove school already knew that Aaron died during basketball practice Friday night, but some did not, said district spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton. Teachers were the first to get the news in a special meeting called by the principal at 7:30 a.m. He directed them to be sensitive to students’ emotional needs.
“Mostly we are looking for things that are out of the ordinary,” Pinkerton said. “The teachers know their students.”
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The cause of Aaron’s sudden death remains undetermined. Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin said Monday afternoon that although her office had completed an autopsy, additional testing needed to be done before determining the cause. Gin said that could take up to a month.
More than 92 of the school’s students sought counselors Monday in a room set aside at the school, said Ralph Robles, Elk Grove Unified’s head counselor.
The district has provided 20 counselors, psychologists and mental health therapists, who will remain at the school as long as needed, Pinkerton said. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department also has sent chaplains to the school. In addition, the district sent counselors to other Elk Grove schools attended by Aaron’s basketball teammates.
Robles said even students who didn’t know Aaron well may need help dealing with his death. Students who haven’t dealt emotionally with the death of someone close to them may find themselves crying or feeling like they need to talk, Robles said.
“We have to work through old memories before we address new issues,” he said.
Aaron was a straight-A student who took honors classes and was always setting goals for himself, Pinkerton said. He often told people he would someday play in the NBA. He was a member of Club Live, where he worked on anti-bullying and anti-drug campaigns.
Teachers at the school described Aaron as a kindhearted boy who was always smiling – even when a test was given, according to school district officials.
“The kids who knew him, loved being around him,” Pinkerton said. “He had such positive energy. He was the go-to kid.”
Monday morning, students at Toby Johnson Middle School started a memorial in front of the school’s marquee. Students and staff at the school also placed Post-it notes with messages to Aaron on a poster in the multipurpose room.
They gathered at the marquee after school to remember their friend, leave heartfelt notes and to console one another with hugs. Many students were members of the school’s band; Aaron played trumpet.
“He was very kind and always cracked jokes when anyone felt bad,” said Lawrence Lee, who sat beside Aaron in the trumpet section of the seventh-grade band.
Jordan Wong arrived at the memorial with a group of friends holding balloons and flowers. He had been friends with Aaron since age 3.
“His smile, it reached from cheek to cheek,” Jordan said.