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How Traumatized Are Puerto Rico’s Children, and What’s Being Done to Help?

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 07, 2018 3 min read
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Puerto Rico’s students and teachers are still grappling with fallout from Hurricane Maria more than a year after the storm struck the island. So what do we know about the extent of trauma in the U.S. territory’s schools, and what resources are being brought to bear to help them?

Schools have provided some data to help answer the question. Early last year, we wrote about the Puerto Rico Department of Education’s attempt to measure the extent to which students and educators were suffering trauma, depression, or other psychological impacts due to Maria. We alluded to this information late last month, but here’s some additional key analysis about the responses:

  • Seven percent of students indicated they had “clinically significant symptoms” of post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Eight percent of students said they had “clinically significant symptoms” of depression.
  • Nine percent of students indicated they were at “high risk” of developing mental health disorders.

Here are some important caveats. First, those three categories of responses don’t cover separate group of students. In other words, one student could indicate such symptoms for both PTSD and depression, for example, according to Joy Lynn Suarez-Kindy, a clinical psychologist who’s consulting with the island’s education department on mental health issues.

Second, those percentages are based on responses from 64,000 students, far short of the more than 300,000 students who were enrolled in Puerto Rico’s public schools earlier this year.

The analysis will eventually cover responses from about 90,000 students, but Suarez-Kindy acknowledged that it’s not the complete picture the department originally and officially sought. At the same time, she said the department knew it wasn’t realistic to expect responses from all students, given the difficult conditions that prevail in Puerto Rico’s schools. (The survey was conducted with the help of the Medical University of South Carolina.)

Although in a document the department said that close to eight out of 10 public school students in Puerto Rico are “resilient,” Suarez-Kindy stressed that, “We’re not saying, ‘They’re resilient and everything is fine.’” It’s possible, for example, that students misunderstood a question and did not provide an accurate answer, Suarez-Kindy noted. However, the totals listed above are lower than what she expected to see.

Ultimately, schools were given a score for the level of trauma students and educators reported on the survey.

So what’s the been the response? Just as schools and not individuals were given scores on the survey, the department’s response will be on a schoolwide basis and not tailored for individual students and educators.

The island’s education department is using a federal Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) grant of $2 million to provide ongoing wellness programs for educators. These will involve once-a-month events as well as separate themes for different months, such as physical fitness and mindfulness. The SERV grant will cover 140 schools that the department identified through surveys as good targets for these programs. (And yes, at $14,286 per school, Suarez-Kindy conceded that SERV alone isn’t providing a ton of money for educators.)

The department is also pledging to provide a social worker for every 250 students, far more social workers than schools have previously used.

In addition, the department is getting into a new arena: applying for competitive grants. The department recently won a $9 million Project Advancing Wellness and Resilience Education grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—to be spread over five years—for several schools.

And outside organizations are also pitching in. Save the Children is “adopting” 12 schools to offer trauma therapy and social-emotional learning services, in conjunction with Carlos Albizu University in San Juan.

Suarez-Kindy could not provide a total cost figure for the department’s efforts to tackle mental health issues in schools. She also said that while mental health services are a crucial part of schools’ recovery, the department is not the primary provider of those services on the island, and must consider other needs when deciding how to use federal funds.

“Yes, we have mental health issues, but we also have crumbling schools, no computers. So the bucket has to be split,” she said.

Asked what the department’s work to help traumatized students and teachers needs most other than money, Suarez-Kindy replied, “No, it’s really just money.”

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