Helping Kids Cope with Disaster
On Staten Island, Angela Dresh, an eighth grader from Tottenville, was killed during Hurricane Sandy’s deluge that washed away her house, a block from Totten Intermediate School. In the Rockaways, science teacher Henry Sullivan drowned in his home and would never return to his students at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island. Beyond repairing schools in ravaged areas after Hurricane Sandy, the New York City Department of Education is responding to the emotional needs of its students — and its staff.
While schools were closed the entire week of the hurricane, school administrators and teachers were asked to report to work the Friday after the storm hit. At the Tottenville and Coney Island schools that had lost one of their own, the DOE asked the nonprofit Counseling in Schools to be there to have their clinical staff to talk with faculty about their own grief and experiences that week, and to prepare them for the students’ return the following Monday.
Kevin Dahill Fuchel, executive director of Counseling in Schools, described his nonprofit’s work as a “progression” because some schools in storm-impacted areas only reopened this week.
“Schools are able to help students if they feel strong. Put the mask over yourself before the person next to you, that’s was the idea, like in airplane,” he said of his recent work with school staff who would soon be helping students cope with post-storm concerns.
On the Parents and Families page of the DOE website, Hurricane Sandy Updates and resources include information on handling trauma and stressful events.
In an interview on MetroFocus, Dr. Harold Koplewicz of the Child Mind Institute described most children as “resilient,” but said a small percentage could have an acute stress reaction to Hurricane Sandy that might not immediately be apparent.
In terms of post-storm anxiety, Dahill Fuchel has a similar view. “Children don’t show signs right away,” he said. ” They really strive towards normalcy and have a hard time with vulnerability. They push towards having solid ground beneath him. The symptoms are not as straightforward as with adults.”
Fuchel is anticipating the needs for students who will have to relocate from areas such as Breezy Point and the Rockaways in Queens, and even for the schools that will be taking in more students.
“That’s really tricky,” he said. “Students come in from areas that are fairly homogenous and tight communities and are coming to new, unfamiliar communities. It may be odd for the schools that the students come to as well. Schools are generally overcrowded.”
According to Connie Cuttle, who oversees counseling for the DOE’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, every school has “a safe room or rooms” — where students can seek counseling — as well as a crisis intervention team and networks which have always been available to them. For schools that have to be relocated, some staff members from the home school are accompanying students to the new one, so the students are not without familiar faces, Cuttle explained.
“In the areas most impacted in Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn, I can speak of about 26 schools that we have worked directly to get extra people into the schools [to counsel children]. They will pick up phone or email us and let us know they need us. This has been ongoing since day after the hurricane,” said Cuttle. She also said that schools are working with community-based mental health organizations at this time.
Guidance counselors work with students as a group to address grief, but when it comes to trauma, students meet one-on-one with a professional, said Diana Costagliola, DOE director of youth development policy and interventions, who also said that for the past two years, schools have been doing increased training in grief and trauma responses.
Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island has 2,500 students in grades 9 through 12 and a faculty of approximately 150, according to Assistant Principal John Xavier, who spoke to MetroFocus on Nov. 13, the school’s fifth day for students since the storm.
“It’s a close-knit family here and people have been here many years,” he said of the teachers and staff, who are “from every place that’s been on the news,” including the Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island. Given that electronic and phone communications were difficult after the storm, some staff only learned of the death of their fellow teacher, Mr. Sullivan, when they returned to the school.
As for signs of stress from students, many of whom experienced the storm flooding and have been living with no utilities at home, Xavier said, “It’s a little too soon to tell.”
“In terms of the loss we had with Henry Sullivan, the students had a larger context to place it in and a sense of sharing grief with the community and city as a whole. It’s different than similar losses that aren’t a part of citywide crisis. There’s a sense that you’re not in this alone.”
He said some of students are less forthcoming than others about what they need, but, “I sense an openness to coming for help. There’s a willingness to help each other. It’s different than other instances of crisis counseling.”
Xavier described a range of supports the school has been providing, including a “thrift store” to provide students and community members with needed items at no cost, with items donated by teachers and other community members.
Even if students are living in their homes again, hot water, heat and electricity has not been restored to many parts of the area.
“We’ve been making showers available to students and the school is offering free lunch through November. They can get additional support here. For the size of the school, we’re a very close-knit community, and that has to do with fact that the adults have been here long time. In a crisis, you see school has become a support center for kids.”