Counseling Today, Features

Returning to normal

Angela Kennedy October 22, 2005

Changing schools can be a scary, anxiety-ridden experience for any student. For those young people displaced by the recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, it can be utterly traumatic. In the past few weeks, thousands of students have been quickly integrated into new school systems in hopes of restoring some sort of order and organization to their lives. The emotional impact of losing a home and being forced to evacuate can adversely affect both the academic achievement and overall mental health of these students as they enter new schools.

School counselors are aware of the special needs of young people displaced by the hurricanes. They are leading teachers and school administrators in the crusade to help these students — and their families — adjust to their new environments. Two American Counseling Association members who are collaborating with fellow staff members and community agencies to help the new students feel welcome and safe shared their experiences.

Clayton County, Georgia

Clayton County, located just south of downtown Atlanta, is one of the smallest yet most densely populated counties in the state. And thanks to Hurricane Katrina, things just got a bit more crowded as more than 1,100 displaced students from the Gulf Coast region enrolled in the school district.

"It’s a significant increase when you look at our total population of 52,000 students," said Ken Sanders, coordinator of guidance and counseling services for Clayton County Public Schools. "We are doing a lot of things to meet the needs of these students, including their personal and social needs."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent an additional five school counselors and two social workers to assist the local school counselors in providing group and individual counseling on a regular basis for students impacted by the hurricanes. "We are identifying those students so the teachers and counselors know to work with them," Sanders said. "And we are touching base with the teachers to see how the students are adapting. We are also linking the students with a buddy in school. We want to put them with another student who is opening and accepting and who will introduce them to other students. We want to make sure, like at lunchtime, they have someone to sit with. The kids’ take on us runs the gamut. Some like it here, some hate it here. We talk funny. We dress funny. Some are worried about graduation. Some just want to go home."

Overall, Sanders said, the students appear to be doing well, even though they are quite naturally grieving. "This is all new to them, and they are adjusting to being in a new place, some without their families. For our older students, they are very concerned about their grades," he said, noting that at present, the Clayton County Public Schools system has no way of contacting the displaced students’ former schools for transfer records. The school system is working closely with the Georgia State Department of Education to relay information and student identifications to the Louisiana State Department of Education, however, Sanders said. "Our focus has been on making sure all the students are enrolled and that they feel safe and comforted," he said. "There are still some questions on whether it’s going to be Georgia or Louisiana tests and requirements. All those things are being discussed."

To add to the stress, several students have been forced to change schools again since evacuating to the Atlanta metropolitan area. Upon arriving, students and their families were placed in temporary housing. Since that time, many families have moved into more permanent housing and, as a result of relocating, students had to re-enroll in yet another new school. Sanders said these students are wondering when the chaos and disruption in their lives will stop. Another obstacle to stability, he said, is that some families are now being allowed to return to the New Orleans area to survey the damage to their homes. Some students are being removed from school for several days to a week at a time. In other cases, Sanders said, school officials are uncertain if the students will even return.

Though counselors and teachers are cognizant of the need to connect with each displaced student, Sanders said, they also try not to single out these students. "We don’t get on the intercom and say, ‘All Hurricane Katrina students come to the office.’ It’s a fine line we have to walk," he said. "We want to know who they are so we can do special things for them, but we don’t want it to be very obvious. We want them to fit in and, for the most part, they are."

From the moment word came down that displaced students and their families were coming to Clayton County, school officials began planning for their arrival. "This has been a very positive experience for us," Sanders said. "The message to our school administration really was, ‘How can we help meet their basic needs — food, shelter, clothing — and their academic needs?’ There was just the attitude of ‘Get it done and do not put any more stress on these families.’ Our job is to help relieve it, and we need to make sure we prove that."

As of early October, Clayton County schools had collected more than $30,000 for American Red Cross hurricane relief efforts — all from staff and student donations.

Mobile County, Alabama

Mobile County is Alabama’s second largest. Located in the extreme southwestern portion of the state, the county also absorbed a mighty blow from Hurricane Katrina. Now the county’s public school system finds itself in a unique position. The school system is not only caring for its own students, counselors and teachers who have suffered losses as a result of the hurricane, it is also taking in students from other areas who were displaced by either Katrina or Hurricane Rita.

"We have a variety of situations that our counselors are dealing with," said Rebecca Elmore, supervisor of guidance services for the Mobile County Public School System. "They are doing group work and individual counseling with the students, and we are encouraging them to touch base with those students daily. We are also serving as resources for the parents of the students who have been affected by the hurricanes."

As of early to mid-October, Mobile County had taken in 465 students from Louisiana, 468 students from Mississippi and seven students from Texas. At the same time, more than 700 of the county’s own students were homeless as a result of Katrina, either living in shelters or being displaced themselves to other schools.

"Most of them left homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs," Elmore said, "so we’ve provided uniforms for them, school supplies and helped their families get in touch with other agencies for assistance." She noted that school counselors have even assisted parents with job placement. Through their large network of community resources and faith-based partners, the school system and school counselors are able to help families get back on their feet, she said.

"We are actively listening to their stories, and right now that is what they need more than anything else," Elmore said. "We are just trying to hold things together and provide some sort of normalcy for these kids. Academically we have some concerns because we don’t have any true records for the new students. We are trying to assess whether their struggles are something new or because of the storm, which a lot of it is because of the situation. Some have lost everything. One little girl in particular kept telling her counselor that all she remembers is that she swam out of her house and there were fish in her home. When she got to where she was going, she only had the clothes on her back. So we’ve seen a lot of what we think is regression. They are afraid to leave, afraid of the weather, things like that."

Many older students are struggling to deal with having to start over socially and academically, because at their previous schools they were already established, sometimes as the football star or valedictorian. "We are just trying to provide emotional support and help them move on," Elmore said. "We want to connect with them every day. It can just be a thumbs up or a comforting smile, but something to let them know every day that we are here for them if they need us. That’s not to say there haven’t been frustrations or difficult moments, but all in all we have weathered (the situation) well."

Before the schools reopened after Hurricane Katrina, the county’s administration and counselors met to discuss strategic plans and disseminated disaster relief and response information to each school principal and staff. Welcome signs were posted in hallways and on school grounds, and teachers were briefed on behavior modification tips and the red flags of post-traumatic stress disorder. The student body was also very sympathetic to the needs of the newcomers. In one instance, a school’s varsity football players collected money to purchase shirts and ties for their new teammates to wear on game days.

"We have tried to include the new students in whatever activities they participated in at their other school," Elmore said. "If they were in band, we got them an instrument. We’ve worked with Girl Scout troops to take in members. We want to include them in everything that our kids are in. Everything that our students take advantage of — from career day to state tests — they are offered, too. They are our kids and are part of our numbers. They are now our students as long as they are here."

At the present time, Elmore said, the most important approach is to be open and honest and to simply listen to the students. "We have to help every school be a normal part of these kids’ lives," she said. "When they go home, it may not be normal, but at school — for those designated seven to eight hours — we can provide normalcy and structure."

Overall, the students in Mobile County are adjusting well, Elmore said, but she is uncertain about how they will cope with the approaching holiday season.

Online resources

In response to the hurricane disasters, both ACA (www.counseling.org) and the American School Counselor Association (www.schoolcounselor.org), a division of ACA, have posted resources and links online.

In addition, Juneau Mahan Gary, a professor at Kean University in New Jersey, has compiled a list of websites devoted to trauma prevention, reduction and intervention for school-aged students. The list (available at www.kean.edu/~jgary) includes sections on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, general trauma and disaster preparedness. Each entry includes the website’s name, a brief summary of its main features and the URL address. The hurricane, trauma and disaster preparedness sections are part of a larger publication of about 150 websites in the "Repository of Internet Resources to Prevent or Reduce Violence and Trauma in Schools." Some sites include information specific to parents and/or youth, and some sites offer multilingual resources.

"I wanted to provide some resources to help these schools help the children to adjust," Gary said. She noted that both the displaced children and the students in the receiving schools may need help adjusting. "The repository has resources for both sides of the situation," she said.

Other website that may prove useful include: