California high school scarred by war since 9/11

A principal’s job has unexpectedly morphed into becoming a grief counselor, after eight graduates die in US wars.

Ricci Ulrich has an official title, which is principal of Buchanan High School in Clovis, California.

But her job has unexpectedly morphed into becoming more of a grief counselor in ways she never imagined 10 years ago.

Since 2004, eight former students of her suburban central California high school have been killed in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than any other high school in California and perhaps more than any one high school in America.

Four of the eight killed from Buchanan High were from the 2001 graduating class.

Two brothers, Nathan and Jared Hubbard were killed in Iraq in 2004 and 2007, respectively. The story received wide national attention.

The most recent war death of a former Buchanan student was on December 2, 2010, when Matthew Abbate was killed in Afghanistan. (Abbate went to Buchanan but transfered to another school his last year). 

Ricci said on September 11, 2001, she could have never predicted so many of her former students would die in wars thereafter.

“You certainly couldn’t look in a crystal ball and have seen this,” Ricci told me in her office recently.

Buchanan High School, in Clovis, California [Maria Elena Romero]

Clovis, with a population of 97,218, is a quiet, middle-class, mostly Caucasian, farming community known for its good schools with world-class teaching and sports facilities – considered to be better than many small colleges in America.

The city is pretty safe, just big enough to have malls, but small enough to feel protected from anything bad happening in the rest of the world. On the city’s website, there is notice that police are investigating an incident described as “annoying a child” at an elementary school.

Clovis isn’t South Central Los Angeles, and folks here like it that way.

It is a picturesque town, and the city slogan is “Gateway to the Sierra’s”, since it’s located at the base of the famous Sierra Nevada mountains.

But the deaths at Buchanan High have shaken this community, and brought the ugly side of the subsequent wars after September 11, 2001, to Clovis’ doorstep.

(Watch my video report from Clovis with one local woman who tells me how terrorism has changed her outlook).

Clovis has always been a particularly patriotic city, where American flags flying from businesses and homes seemingly out-number stop signs, but even more so recently.

In the main office at Buchanan High, a painting done by an art teacher of three of the graduates killed hangs in full view.

There is no space on the main part of the memorial for more names [Maria Elena Romero]

In a trophy case, the varsity baseball national championship trophy has been moved aside, and the middle of the space, front and center, is filled with momentos from the school’s war dead, like funeral programmes and photos.

And out in a main plaza of the school – tucked under a couple trees to provide shade from the sweltering Central Valley heat – a memorial site contains plaques for all eight students who have died in the wars the last decade.

There is no space for more names. The main area of the memorial is full.

Still, Ulrich says being fully transparent and talking about the deaths at her school is useful.

“Kids are curious, they’re trying to make sense out of the world,” Ulrich told me. “There were kids who were affected most definitely. They went to church with these families, live next door. They are an extended family.”

Though the school is considered one of the best in the nation, a district spokesperson tells me her phone has been ringing off the hook with reporters wanting to talk not about that, but wanting to set up interviews about the war deaths. Several foreign media folks, she said, have called for phone inerviews. 

She says they likely won’t do any more media on the subject for a while, fearing it just takes up too much time away from other priorities.

Time – and emotion – as I found out.

Since the memorial was dedicated in 2007, three names of Buchanan students have been added [Maria Elena Romero]

Ulrich is forced to put on a brave face, but when I ask her if any of the deaths have hit particularly hard on a personal level, she says:

“It would be Tony Butterfield. He was [death[ number six … He came from a large family and his sister was in the same graduating class as my son … So, yeah, that one really hit me.”

Ulrich then picks up a tissue to wipe away her tears.

Nobody really knows why Buchanan High has had such an extraordinary number of deaths. It’s likely just an odd coincidence. There are 2,530 students at the school this year, and Ulrich estimates roughly 60 per cent of Buchanan graduates go directly to college 10-15 per cent to technical school or do missionary work and about 10 per cent enlist in the military or military academies.

The economic recession in America has hit Clovis particularly hard property values and the job market have tanked.

Tough economic times perhaps have been forcing more teenagers in Clovis to consider military careers.

“Clovis has changed,” Ulrich said. “We have families that were middle-class or upper-middle-class, who are now in situational types of poverty because of job loss of one or more parents.”

“Students look to us to bridge them to the work force, and that can mean college, vocational school. And certainly the military is an option.”

About 20 per cent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch based on low family income, Ulrich said – a high number for a high school considered once considered to be in an affluent area.

I ask Ulrich if – as a principal of a suburban California high school thousands of miles from New York and Washington DC – the events of September 11, 2001, have significantly affected her.

“I know my life has been touched more than the average person, because I get to re-live eight lives lost that have been part of defending freedom in this country, and so, yes, my life has changed quite a bit from that day,” she said. “You bet.”

Before I leave, I ask her if she thinks she will get another call that one of her graduates has been killed.

“We try to stop at eight [deaths],” she said. “You can’t possibly think this is going to happen again. And of course, as this goes on, you say that every time … But I don’t have too much control over that. I can’t predict the future.”


Matthew Abbate, 26, class of 2002

Jeremiah Barro, 21, class of 2001

Anthony Butterfield, 19, class of 2005

Nicolas Eischen, 24, class of 2001

Jared Hubbard, 22, class of 2001

Nathan Hubbard, 21, class of 2004

Brian Piercy, 27, class of 2001

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel

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