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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Hunter High School students Jennalie McCullough and Tanner Hall were among a small group of students who dressed up Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012, out of respect for former West Valley residents Charlie and Braden Powell, who were killed by their father Josh Powell.

WEST VALLEY — Jennalie McCullough woke up Tuesday morning to five text messages encouraging her to wear her Sunday best to school. The Hunter High senior and student body officer was one of many students who acted on the invitation, joining her peers in a demonstration of love and support for the family of Charlie and Braden Powell.

"There was at least me and someone else in every class," she said.

McCullough estimated that 100 students at Hunter participated by dressing up. She did not know the Powell family personally, she said, but news of the children's violent deaths struck a particular chord in the community where the boys spent the first years of their lives.

Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, were killed Sunday by their father, Josh Powell, who intentionally set his Graham, Wash., home on fire when his sons were there on a court-ordered visitation. Josh Powell, who also died in the blaze, had been a person of interest in the December 2009 disappearance of his wife, the boys' mother, Susan Powell. Josh Powell moved his family to Washington from West Valley shortly after his wife's disappearance.

"I think a lot of people are sad and shocked," she said. "You didn't see it coming and I'm sure there were ways to prevent it. But it happened and so people are just very sad for the boys."

Hunter High School principal John Welburn said he and his administrators noticed an unusual number of students in dresses and ties but were not made aware of the cause until later in the day.

"It makes you proud that you have students that are always looking out for others and want to show that they care and that they want to reach out to the families and show their love and concern," Welburn said.

Welburn said he did not give any specific instruction to counselors or other faulty members on addressing the tragedy with students. He said any student concerns would be addressed case by case.

"Certainly, there's individuals in the community that are deeply impacted," Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said. "Our counseling staff is always on alert for situations like this," Horsley said.

Horsley also stressed the importance of family communication, especially after a tragedy where children are harmed.

"It's certainly a situation where parents need to talk to their children about this," he said.

The actions of the Hunter High School student body was just one act of solidarity and support that has followed the killings of the boys by their father. Candlelight vigils, memorials and an outpouring of emotion has been present throughout the state as Utahns react to the horrific end to a story that has played out over two years.

"It resonates with everyone, this was a mother. We've all got one of those, and then it was drawn out over time and we were trickled down information in time," Matt Townsend, a nationally recognized relationship expert said Tuesday. Townsend, who hosts The Matt Towsend Show on KSL, said, "We connect to it because it's real, it's human, and there's a bunch of roles in here we all relate to."

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He said that when a story that has dominated the public consciousness for years ends on such a tragic note it can produce a feeling of anger in a community. When that happens, he said, people have the choice of letting that anger give way to rage or trying to heal, with memorials being a perfect example of how a community can turn those emotions into something better.

"We suffered the tragedy as a community, we suffered the pain of the searches as a community," Townsend said. "We're going to suffer the tragedy of it as a community and then at the end we'll rise from it as a community."

Prevent Child Abuse Utah will hold a memorial for Charlie and Braden Powell, and other victims of child abuse, on Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Municipal Gardens Playground in Ogden.

Contributing: Jennifer Stagg

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com