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Published in Print: January 23, 1991, as Educators Helping Students Come To Grips With War

Educators Helping Students Come To Grips With War

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As the long-dreaded fighting began in the Persian Gulf last week, schools struggled to help a generation of children that has never known war come to grips with the fast-unfolding events in the Middle East.

Across the nation, schools devoted moments of silence to thoughts of American servicemen and women; students staged protests and arranged prayer services and blood drives.

Schools and other support agencies, meanwhile, responded with an outpouring of offers of counseling for anxious students and families with loved ones overseas.

For many of the bleary-eyed children who had stayed up late last Wednesday night watching the opening hours of the conflict on the television news, the war did not come as a surprise. Most had been discussing some aspect of the U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf in their classes since last fall.

Talking About War

Educators said last week that the outbreak of war presented them with a new challenge: Should they talk to students about it? And how?

"I think we have to realize children are aware of what's going on," said Sheldon Berman, president of Educators for Social Responsibility, a national group based in Cambridge, Mass. "By not talking about it, we are making a significant statement: We are saying we are afraid to talk about it."

"Children don't always share with us that they're feeling in ways that might upset us," he said.

Talking about the crisis, added Margaret Dawson, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, can also help dispel any misconception a child may harbor.

"You need to check fantasies and bring back reality," she said. "We can tell them, 'No, we're not going to blow up the world,' or 'The allied forces are trying very hard not to bomb children."'

Mr. Berman said teachers have told him that children came to school last week asking if their homes would be bombed or wondering whether terrorists would pollute their drinking water. Some younger students, he added, did not know that the war was taking place in a region of the world thousands of miles away.

But the task of discussing the war is an extremely delicate one, acknowledged teachers who broached the subject in class last week.

"Parents sometimes don't talk about it with their kids and, as a teacher, you've got 24 or 25 children with different levels of understanding and emotion," said Esther Weisman Kattef, who teaches 10- and 11-year-olds at Edward Devotion School in Brookline, Mass.

In addition, she noted, teachers "come to this with our own levels of concerns, and we do not want to bring our agenda on the child."

In her class, Ms. Kattef said, the students asked to devote their daily class "meeting" to the subject of the Persian Gulf war. She said one girl got up during the discussion, put her arm around another girl who had recently immigrated to this country from Israel and said, "I don't know anybody in the Gulf, so it must be different for me than it is for her because she has family there."

To make the task of discussing the war easier for students, Mr. Berman's group last week put together a four-page pamphlet answering teachers' questions about classroom discussions on the war. The Maryland-based National Association of School Psychologists has also compiled a packet of information on the subject.

Teachers characterized student reactions Thursday as running the gamut from shock, sadness, fear, curiosity, and confusion, to a jingoistic attitude that some educators said is disturbing.

"I find myself having to remind students that, while they are trying to displace Saddam, those bombs are also hitting innocent people," said Arthur Marquardt, a high-school teacher from Adrian, Mich. "I don't want my students to have a kind of computer-game mentality about this."

James Connelly, superintendent of the Bridgeport, Conn., schools, said students expressed concern about what a prolonged war could do to their futures. Although students had not specifically mentioned the possibility that the United States might reinstate the draft, he said several worried whether an expensive war would affect their prospects of receiving financial aid for college.

"Beyond that, it's just the fear of the country at war," Mr. Connelly said. "That is something this generation has never experienced."

Perhaps the touchiest subject for schools, officials said, is how to talk about students' fears of terrorist activity.

In districts located near large defense contractors, oil refineries, the nation's capital, and other strategic locations, students are concerned about their own safety, officials said.

In Fairfax County, Va., just outside Washington, educators are being thoroughly briefed on emergency procedures, said Dolores B. Bohen, the assistant superintendent for communications.

"Nobody is saying that this school system may be the object of terrorism," Ms. Bohen said. "But you can't live in the shadow of the nation's capital and not be aware that Washington and the Washington area is a likely target."

In East Baton Rouge, La., school officials are taking seriously the threat of a possible terrorist strike against the vast complex of oil refineries, pipelines, and port facilities that ring the district.

But Horace White, the district's deputy superintendent, said students are not particularly discomfited by the terrorist threat.

"When you grow up in a refinery city," he said, "there are things that you just get used to on a day-to-day basis."

And while the advice of emergency personnel is being taken very seriously, there has been a lighter side to the grim preparations.

Last week, Mr. White said, a parent called to ask if, in the event of an explosion at a nearby nuclear plant, the day's absence would count as excused or unexcused.

"After I got through choking, I said, 'Yes, Ma'am, it would be excused,"' Mr. White said.

Last Thurday morning, one of the first decisions facing school officials was whether to tune in to television news programs, or to turn off the sets in an effort to relieve students' anxieties.

James Fleming, an associate superintendent in Dade County, Fla., where schools receive Cable News Network's broadcasts over the district's cable-television network, noted that the educational advantages of instant access to network news may prove to have a negative side if the broadcasts contain graphic images of battlefield violence.

In Dallas, Superintendent of Schools Marvin Edwards used the district's educational cable channel on Thursday to urge teachers to remain neutral in discussions about the Gulf conflict, and to take questions from district personnel.

At Amanda Arnold Elementary School in Manhattan, Kan., meanwhile, faculty members decided not to air television programs, said Barbara Maughmer, a 1st-grade teacher.

The decision was made "to help the children who said we really don't want it," she explained, noting that nearly 30 percent of the students are military dependents. "It's almost emotionally too much for them to handle."

A number of teachers also said they were using local and national newspapers as teaching tools.

Mr. Marran of Winnetka said he gave students the map published on the front page of The New York Times in Thursday morning's edition to show students the locations of the targets of Wednesday night's air strike by the allied forces.

"The map ... was probably the most used teaching aid here today," he said.

News that war had broken out in the Persian Gulf appeared to have a greater impact last week on schools located on or near military bases in this country and Germany.

At Nuernberg Elementary School on Monteith Army Base in Germany, nearly 800 of the school's 1,100 students stayed home from school last Thursday. And spokesmen for three school districts near military bases in the United States also said attendance was slightly lower than usual that day.

"I talked to lots of mothers who said they were going to keep their kids home," said Marquette McKnight, a spokesman for the Muscogee County, Ga., school district, where roughly one-quarter of the students have mothers or fathers working at Fort Benning. "It's just a natural reaction to draw your kids close."

Administrators at other districts said parents were also expressing concerns about security.

School officials in Oceanside, Calif., said they have hired private security guards to augment the around-the-clock coverage the military police already provide to three of the district's elementary schools located at Camp Pendleton.

In addition, they said, the district has employed a roving security patrol to guard school buildings outside the base.

School districts said they were addressing students' sense of emotional security by mobilizing the teams of social workers and psychologists they had put together as early as last fall to help students cope with fears about family members participating in what is now Operation Desert Storm. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1990.)

But, while educators said there were some tears, only a handful of students appeared to need extra help from counselors. At Santa Margarita Elementary School at Camp Pendleton, for example, four students were referred to psychologists.

"None of them were hysterical," said Daniel Armstrong, a spokesman for the Oceanside district. "They just felt they could use a hug and a little reassurance."

Ms. Maughmer, the 1st-grade teacher in Manhattan, Kan., said seven 4th-grade students whose parents are stationed in the Persian Gulf asked to spend Thursday morning together. The children went into a small room to talk quietly, write, and draw pictures.

"They also ate lunch together," Ms. Maughmer said. "They did it on their own. They just wanted each other."

At Oceanside, several days before the offensive began, one school held a Desert Shield Day with the help of local Marine Corps officials. They pitched tents and re-created conditions on a Saudi Arabian desert.

Students in physical-education classes at Nuernberg Elementary School had begun an ambitious effort to run the number of miles from the base to locations in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries. They marked the distances on a map spanning one wall in the school, said Melba Brown, an assistant principal.

"It helps that they're doing something," she said.

Charles Bethea, superintendent of the 3,600-student Marion, S.C., school district, said his "conservative and patriotic community" has been deeply affected by the call-up of a local National Guard unit attached to the Army's 24th Mechanized Infantry Unit.

Parents and students alike likely will respond to a call for blood from a local Red Cross unit, he said.

"We're kind of in the backwater of social activism down this way," Mr. Bethea said. "You see a lot more flags and prayer services than protests."

Students across the country expressed in a variety of ways their hopes that the war would be over quickly.

Their demonstrations ranged from a couple of girls at Highland Oaks Middle School in North Miami Beach, Fla., who wore peace-sign earrings and peace signs painted on their cheeks, to organized anti-war activity.

While the 490 students of McCurdy Elementary School in the Hazelwood School District in suburban St. Louis taped red, white, and blue stars with messages to soldiers to the school's front windows, hundreds of high-school students in Minneapolis and St. Paul staged anti-war demonstrations, sit-ins, and debates.

The events at eight Twin Cities public and private high schools were sponsored by the Youth Against Militarism Project, a local group that provides resources and support for high-school student activists, said Whitney Clark, a staff organizer with YAM. About 75 to 100 students were involved in the planning of the events, he said.

At Minneapolis South High School, students from 15 local high schools gathered for a press conference Thursday morning, while others simultaneously staged a sit-in and a teach-in at the school.

The school administration sanctioned the 50-student press conference, Mr. Clark said, but "they didn't have a whole lot of control over the sit-in," which drew "pretty much the whole school."

Four students read formal state4ments of opposition to the war, Mr. Clark said, including Bao Phi, a Vietnamese-American sophomore at Minneapolis South. He talked about his father's experience fighting for South Vietnam and noted that his brother is about to ship out to the Persian Gulf.

"He made it clear, as all the speakers did, that we're not in opposition to the troops," Mr. Clark said, "but rather to the leadership that would sacrifice them for oil profits."

"They're feeling very empowered," he said of the student activists. "I think they feel they have a responsibility to speak out against the war."

In Oakland, Calif., Los Angeles, and Chicopee, Mass., students also made known their concerns about the war.

About 30 students and faculty members at Oakland Technical High School began planning debates, poetry readings, historical discussions, and a teach-in after anti-war graffiti was sprayed onto the school.

"We want to ensure that students get both sides of the issue," said Christine Dargahi, an assistant principal, "so they can make a stand on more than just the emotional reactions from what they see on TV."

At both Oakland Technical and Oakland High School, students have staged walkouts in recent days. And the Oakland Unified School District last Thursday canceled all in-service meetings for teachers so they could stay with their students.

Unrest at John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles, where about half of the school's nearly 2,000 students walked out of classes briefly Tuesday afternoon, has prompted school officials to draft plans to keep the school operating safely in the event of disruptive protests.

Dade County also reported evidence of student activism before the air attack began last week, but Mr. Fleming, the assistant superintendent, said the protests quieted quickly after the bombing began.

"Since the armed conflict began, there's been a closing of the ranks around the President and the troops," Mr. Fleming said. "We have now almost a universal expression of hope that our military engagement is short and successful."

In private schools across the country last week, educators cut into class schedules to hold assemblies and pray for peace in the Persian Gulf.

Private-school students who live on campus also were taking advantage of the availability of residential counselors to stay up late, watch television, and discuss the unfolding drama. Long after-dinner conversations were also a common fixture on boarding-school campuses, officials said.

Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., President Bush's alma mater, held an all-school meeting last Tuesday, the day of the United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, to "reflect on our hopes for peace and our support for what action was ultimately taken," said Donald W. McNemar, the school's headmaster.

"It was important that we disrupt our ordinary academic schedule and come together to support one another," Mr. McNemar said.

The Culver Military Academy and Culver Girls Academy in Culver, Ind., held an all-school convocation Wednesday that featured several students and faculty members "explaining the situation and how we should be behind our armed forces in the Middle East," said Beth Reaker, assistant director of public information.

At the Westchester Hebrew High School in Mamaroneck, N.Y., students fasted and prayed on the day of the deadline, and the television was on and discussions under way on the Gulf crisis in social-studies classes Thursday, according to Gail Mahler, the school's registrar.

Ms. Mahler noted that, because of their special concern about the danger to Israel, "most, if not all, of the students are supporting the President."

But at the Urban School of San Francisco, in the city's Haight-Ashbury district, several teachers and students are participating in anti-war demonstrations in the area.

Mark Salkind, the school's director, said he was making an effort to "talk about mob mentality" and "to make some distinctions" between violent and nonviolent protest.

"The school is not advocating civil disobedience," Mr. Salkind added, noting that the school wants students "to let their voices be heard through peaceful marches and demonstrations."

The noon prayer Thursday at the St. Matthias Catholic School in Chicago focused on "any soldier who has been killed today on either side,'' noted Sister Marcian Swanson, the school's principal.

The Oak Ridge (N.C.) Military Academy planned to combine a briefing on the Gulf crisis Friday for cadets with an assembly to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

"We felt there was some degree of appropriateness" to link the briefing on war with someone "so involved with world peace," Robert R. Rossi, the academy's president, said. "We want to remind them that's really the ultimate goal of any military operation."

Vol. 10, Issue 18, Page 1, 12-13

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