Originally created 08/30/97

Cheerleader tragedy affecting university



At their opening game Thursday night, football players from the State University of West Georgia wore black megaphone patches on their uniforms in memory of two cheerleaders and their coach who died this month in a van wreck.

Their opponents at North Dakota State University also observed a moment of silence before starting the game.

A group of West Georgia cheerleaders was traveling Aug. 10 to a camp in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when their speeding van flipped over on Interstate 20 near Crawfordville, Ga.

Cheerleaders Deandre Hamilton, 20, of Snellville, and Michael Massa, 18, of Rex, and their coach, Stephanie Shaw, 27, of Forest Park, died from injuries suffered in the wreck. Ten others were hospitalized.

Two of the injured cheerleaders remained hospitalized Friday.

Hilary Brown was still in serious condition at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, hospital spokeswoman Christine Deriso said. Keith Elliott was transferred last week from MCG to Shepherd Center Spinal Cord Injury Program in Atlanta. His condition was not available Friday night.

Since the accident, officials and counselors at the Carrollton, Ga., school have held vigils and offered counseling to help the accident survivors and their classmates cope with the tragedy. Counselors have also contacted the families of all the cheerleaders to offer support.

"They need to talk about it to somebody as soon as possible in order to keep it from causing problems later on," said Ann Phillips, assistant director of the Student Development Center and disabilities coordinator for the campus.

"It's important to talk about what they saw, what they feel about what they saw," Ms. Phillips said. "All these emotions, sights and sounds. All of these things need to be re-experienced again with a therapist."

The fatal accident has affected many West Georgia students, especially those who were friends with the cheerleaders, officials said.

"I was talking with a young man today who was very close friends with Stephanie Shaw," said Lisa Ledbetter, director of university public relations. "He's lost a young friend. There will be a number of students who will require counseling assistance to work through the grief process."

The week of the accident, 200 students attended a prayer service on campus. Another memorial service is planned after students return to campus for fall quarter Sept. 24, Ms. Ledbetter said.

A special tribute is also planned during Saturday's home football opener against Mars Hill College of North Carolina. That will also be the first time the cheerleaders perform since the accident.

"We are wanting to do it as well, as tastefully as we possibly can," said Mitch Gray, sports information director.

Six cheerleaders, who were not injured in the accident, began practicing Tuesday for the football season. School officials still aren't sure when - or how many - of their teammates will return this year.

"These folks, basically they'll be coming back on their own," Mr. Gray said. "Their spot is assured whether it takes three months or three years."