August 16, 2023

Dear White Salmon Valley School District families,

It is with sadness that I share with you about a loss to our school community. We learned recently of the death of one of our former students, Sawyer McCauley, who graduated from Columbia High School (CHS) last spring with the class of 2022. Sawyer’s family wants our community and friends to know that Sawyer died because of a drug related accident. His family is devastated but thankful for all of the people that cared for Sawyer during his short life. They will release a personal statement about their beloved son and service plans when they are ready.

We are organizing support for Sawyer’s family, our staff, and our students. Community and WSVSD crisis counseling and support staff will be available for students, staff and community members on Thursday evening (8/17) from 6:00pm to 8:00pm at the WSVSD Field House, 1435 Field House Lane. 

Please also know school counselors are also available to provide support for students; they can be reached by phone or email (below). If you or your child needs immediate support, please call the Southwest Washington Crisis Line at 800.626.8137 or call/text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Additional Resources include:

School Counselors
Whitson: Julie O’Donnell -, 509.493.1560
Henkle/WPSIS: Michael Kane -, 509.493.1502
Columbia/WS Academy: Jenny Hallead -, 509.493.1970

Gorge Area Resources
Mid-Columbia Center For Living - 541-386-2620
One Community Health - 541-386-6380

We are thinking of Sawyer’s family and friends and extending our deepest sympathies. Times like these remind us of how important it is to come together to value, support, and care for each other.


Rich Polkinghorn
Superintendent, White Salmon Valley School District

Supporting Your Child

Individual Support for Younger Children:

  • Answer questions honestly in language he/she can understand.
  • Share your own reactions and feelings, including crying if appropriate.
  • Share similar experiences you may have had.
  • Ask what he/she may be angry about or afraid of.
  • Describe the funeral service ahead of time and ask if he/she wants to attend.
  • Give lots of hugs and reassurance.
  • Expect some behaviors the child has previously outgrown, such as thumb-sucking, bedwetting, or separation anxiety. These will stop on their own in time. Look for the feelings beneath the behavior.

Individual Support for Teenagers:

  • Express sympathy directly – “I’m sorry this happened to you”.
  • Be available to listen.
  • Respect his/her need to be alone.
  • Give hugs or flowers, cook a favorite food, lend a teddy bear.
  • Find out if he/she wants to do “routine” activities or wants a break.
  • Tell him/her about any support groups of peers who are also grieving.
  • Ask if he/she wants to keep a journal or diary.
  • Ask him/her about addressing a letter of “regrets and appreciations” to the person who died.
  • Describe the funeral service ahead of time and ask if he/she wants to attend.

When Professional Help Is Needed – Warning Signs

Any of these signs may be present in initial stages of grief. Pay special attention if they persist over time. If you have concerns about your child, another student or staff member, notify your school counselor, administrator, or Crisis Counseling Support Team member.

Physical Signs:

  • Changes in eating patterns – loss of appetite or overeating.
  • Changes in sleep patterns – insomnia or sleeping much more than usual.
  • Nausea, headaches, stomach aches, or other body aches.

Behavioral Signs:

  • Aggressive behavior, exaggerated displays of power, anger, rage.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Inability to focus or concentrate.
  • Complete absorption in daydreams.
  • Compulsive care-giving.
  • Prone to accidents, self-destructive behavior.
  • Stealing or other illegal activity.
  • Use or abuse of drugs or alcohol – often for self-medication of emotional pain.
  • Regression – behaviors characteristic of a younger child.

Emotional Signs:

  • Persistent anxieties.
  • Desire to die.
  • Inability or unwillingness to speak of the deceased.
  • Exaggerated clinging to others.
  • Expression of only negative OR only positive feelings about the deceased.
  • Absence of visible grief.
  • Strong resistance to forming new relationships.