WILDFIRE AND FLOOD season is approaching in California, which means that once again schools will play a central role in helping communities recover from trauma.
In some cases, schools will provide food, housing and supplies to families who’ve lost everything. In other instances, schools will be a gathering point for displaced communities. And just about everywhere, they’ll provide a much-needed sense of normalcy for students, staff and families whose lives have been upended by disaster.
EdSource talked to two experts from the Center for Safe and Resilient Schools and Workplaces, a nonprofit that specializes in schools and trauma, about the best ways for schools to prepare for natural disasters as well as shootings and other violence. They also describe the repercussions of not preparing.
Marleen Wong has consulted with thousands of schools and other agencies on disaster response and school crises. She’s provided on-site management during the Los Angeles riots, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the 9/11 terrorist attack and other events.
Pamela Vona was the lead author of the Trauma-Responsive School Implementation Assessment and the Trauma-informed Skills for Educators curriculums. She also consulted with the Clark County School District in Las Vegas following the Mandalay Bay mass shooting.
Are traumatic events something every school should prepare for?
VONA: Absolutely. I don’t think there is any community that’s safe from experiencing a traumatic event. There’s data from the Pew Research Center showing a 50 percent increase in gun deaths among children from 2019 to 2021. We’re also seeing more natural disasters: tornadoes in the Midwest, hurricanes in the South and fires and flooding in the West.
WONG: Schools have been dealing with trauma ever since schools opened in the 1800s, they just haven’t realized it. Children have experienced grief and loss, they’ve come from communities of poverty, high crime, gang activity. But we’ve become more aware because of the increase in numbers and intensity of traumatic events. And sometimes following some of these really large mass events, like Hurricane Katrina, for example, you focus on recovery, but you find that some of the things that are most bothersome to students are violence in the community, things that were happening at home. So in a way, these large-scale events have really opened our eyes to these other issues that have been festering. It’s like lifting up a rock and seeing what was underneath all along.
Considering that traumatic events are inevitable, what should schools do to prepare?
WONG: The U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Healthy Students Office says preparation is absolutely essential. Schools need to take proactive measures. Take wildfires, for example. Schools need to anticipate the number of children that might be affected and learn to identify the signs and symptoms of students who might need additional support.
There’s so much that schools can do regarding threat assessment. Much of threat assessment weighs in the direction of law enforcement, but there’s so much schools can do through a mental health lens to prevent violence. There’s a lot we can do to provide early intervention and support our students before their behavior escalates. We can bring in more school psychologists, social workers, counselors, etc., to identify those kids and provide them with the services that they need. Educators can’t do it alone.
Another thing we’ve learned is that recovery is a long process, especially with school shootings. In Newtown or Parkland, (Florida), recovery is still going on. Children need ongoing support in order to come to school, stay in school, do well in school. We’ve learned that children don’t have to get PTSD if they have good support from the adults around them. Research shows that no matter what the terrible situation might be, up to and including war, if children have role models and see adults who have a plan in place, who are reassuring, who protect them, that those children actually do very, very well.
VONA: Unfortunately, educators are now in a position where they have to be first responders. Some of the burnout they’re experiencing is related to the fact that they just don’t feel like they have the skills or the capacity to support kids in the context of what’s going on. We’ve found that educators really benefit from psychological first-aid training, where they learn that there’s strategies and skills that are absolutely effective at supporting students in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. Giving teachers confidence and a sense of agency is often what they need. Equipping them with skills is very empowering.
What role can schools play in helping a child, a family or a community recover from a traumatic event?
WONG: Often, schools are the first institution in a community that reopens after a disaster. I’ve traveled around the world and seen where there might be a devastating earthquake, for example, such as in China, and the first thing they did was gather all the tables that they could salvage from the collapsed schools, all the books and materials, pencils and crayons, and they set up an outdoor school with a tarp over, so it could protect children from the sun. And that was very much needed as a first step: calm, routine and adults who support children and restore their normal life to the extent possible.
VONA: Schools can create that predictability and consistency and provide a sense of community. We know that relationships are essential to the healing process, so providing a place where people can come back and connect is what we call a protective factor following a traumatic experience.
During wildfires in Sonoma County, some schools became hubs for the whole community. Have you seen this happen elsewhere?
VONA: I think we saw that in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) during COVID, where some schools were still providing lunches to students. There’s two things happening there: Schools are addressing the immediate basic health needs of students and families, and also providing that connection, those safe adults that a student can connect with. That’s reassuring, particularly during a time when we may have lost a lot of our connections.
WONG: Some school districts have contracts with organizations like the Red Cross and local disaster response and recovery agencies. After Hurricane Katrina, schools became a place where the whole community was fed and housed. Families whose homes were destroyed slept in gymnasiums. Teachers in that respect became first responders because they volunteered to serve the community.
With disasters and shootings becoming more common, what have we learned along the way?
VONA: Following Sandy Hook, our center trained teachers there and in neighboring districts using the Bounce Back program, a cognitive behavioral intervention designed for elementary students. The staff found it so beneficial that it actually became a statewide initiative in Connecticut. That’s a large-scale example of seeing something grow from a tragic event.
WONG: A study compared two evidence-based interventions among 120 kids who met the diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixty kids were provided with the interventions at school, and the other 60 children had to be taken to a clinic. Of those who went to the clinic, only four completed all 10 of the weekly sessions. Of the kids who received interventions at school, 56 of the 60 no longer had PTSD when they were finished. They had some symptoms, but not on a level that was debilitating or considered a mental health condition. That, to me, really shows how schools can do so much for children and their families.
What happens if a school doesn’t handle this well? What are the repercussions?
WONG: I’ve been approached by law firms representing students who’ve survived school shootings. So it’s a risk management issue. There’s been so many of them that we now have education policy on how schools have to be prepared. Schools have to anticipate disasters, whether they’re related to climate change or whether they’re acts of mass violence. Staff have to be trained so that they respond effectively when something has happened. And they need to have mental health providers and school resource officers who can help children after these events. On the one hand, it’s a public health necessity, and on the other hand, we have legal and risk management issues.
In California, we’re now approaching fire season and potential flooding. What advice do you have for schools?
WONG: Schools should start now, thinking about the impacts. For instance, do they have an effective way of connecting with families? Are teachers prepared to go online and offer education? Have schools trained their teachers to provide psychological first-aid when children return to the classroom, whether it’s in person or online? Do schools have programs in place to keep children in school, to keep them safe, to reassure them if they’re traumatized?
Why is this important? What’s at stake?
VONA: It’s important because there isn’t a community that’s untouched by this. What’s at stake is children’s futures. We know that traumatic stress, when unaddressed, affects children. In the immediate aftermath, we see things like increased rates of anxiety, depression, symptoms of PTSD. We know it lowers their grades. We know it increases the dropout rate. And there’s a lot of data that shows the correlation to long-term adult health outcomes, like higher rates of obesity, lung disease, cancer. And then there’s social implications: lower rates of employment, higher rates of incarceration.
WONG: Trauma leaves children behind in so many ways. Science has really opened our eyes to the range of traumatic experiences that children experience, and how it affects them. So for education to achieve its mission, we have to try to ameliorate those effects and address the needs of the whole child.