School Climate & Safety

Schools Hit the Hardest by Losses On Sept. 11 Monitor Emotional Toll

By Catherine Gewertz — October 10, 2001 8 min read
Resources for Educators Bush Visits N.Y.C. Elementary School Religion Rules Afghan, Pakistani School Day Student Poll Asks How Schools Talked About Terrorist Assaults Patriotism and Prayer: Constitutional Questions Are Muted Schools Hit the Hardest By Losses on Sept. 11 Monitor Emotional Toll Teachers Delay Delaing With Own Grief, Anxiety Terror Touches Schools

As a college counselor at Xavier High School in New York City, Jayne I. Lee draws on years of knowledge and cabinets full of information in guiding the higher education dreams of promising young men.

But in the weeks since Sept. 11, her most-employed assets have been her ears, for listening, and her shoulder, for crying on.

Every day, students or administrators wander into Ms. Lee’s office to talk, weep, or reminisce about those lost to the Jesuit high school for boys on Sept. 11.

A five-minute walk from the site of the World Trade Center, Xavier’s walls may still be intact, but its heart is aching. Students, teachers, and staff members lost 29 relatives, including three parents of students, in the terrorist attack last month. The list of friends, alumni, and their family members missing or dead swells the number by an additional two dozen or more.

In the close-knit school, where bonds are deep and often span generations, teachers grieve not only for students who lost parents, but for the older brothers of those students, whom they also taught, and for their families, whom they have known for years. After the funeral of an alumnus, one teacher couldn’t complete his workday; he was haunted by memories of the young man on a field trip, on the rugby field.

“We’re taking it day to day. Everything’s being done in baby steps,” Ms. Lee said. “We’re having a hard time.”

Grim Tally

Xavier may be among the schools hardest hit by last month’s terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but in suffering multiple losses, it has many companions. The anguish can be mapped by tracing the highways and train tracks from the New York and Washington disaster sites to the communities that were home to their workers.

To the east of New York City, in Long Island’s Manhasset school district, 24 families lost a parent. To the west, in the Summit, N.J., public schools, 10 children in five families lost their fathers. To the north, in Ridgewood, N.J., in one school alone, three fathers died, leaving behind six children. In Greenwich, Conn., relatives were lost to students or employees in 13 of the 15 school buildings.

Three schools in the District of Columbia lost a student and a teacher each on the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon.(“Grief Descends on School After Terror Hits Home,” Sept. 26, 2001.) At one high school in Rockville, Md., northwest of Washington, students lost six relatives.

“Every one of our children either has someone in their direct family, a neighbor, friend, relative, or playmate who has been affected by this,” said Lawrence Bozzomo, the superintendent of the 2,500-student Manhasset district.

In the districts where the losses are particularly concentrated, administrators have taken many of the same steps: They have informed parents, usually by letter, of the signs of depression to watch for in their children and have put teams of crisis counselors on call.

One of their chief aims has been to push on with the regular school routine, to provide children with the reassurance of normal life, while still watching their youngsters closely for signs that they might need help.

“We don’t group- process except when the kids demand it. We don’t impose counseling on them. We provide it when they or their family request it,” said Arlene Pincus, the principal of Deerfield Elementary School in Short Hills, N.J., one of the areas where many family members were killed.

“We are trying to strike a balance between being intrusive and being supportive,” she said. Teachers at Deerfield Elementary told their pupils that when grieving peers return to school, it is fine to express condolences, but not to press for details, Ms. Pincus said.

In Summit, teachers told their classes why classmates were missing, and urged students to be especially understanding when those children return, said Michael Knowlton, the superintendent of the 3,300-student New Jersey district.

At times, the outpouring of support has overwhelmed district families, so school staff members have stepped in and served as intermediaries, collecting and conveying the many offers of carpools, cooked meals, and other help, Mr. Knowlton said.

Close Monitoring

While it is natural for most elementary-school-age children to want to return to normalcy as quickly as possible after such a trauma, experts advise the adults in their lives to retain a watchful gaze over the youngsters’ emotional state.

“Adults find it reassuring that kids get back to normal, and assume that means they are fine,” said Judith Myers-Walls, an associate professor of child development at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

“They don’t talk about it, and then kids pick up that it’s not OK to talk about it,” she said. “We need to be careful not to assume that just because they get back to normal and are not showing outward signs of grief, they are OK.”

The fact that the Sept. 11 destruction was deliberate and affected multiple families in the same school will increase all students’ feelings of vulnerability, Ms. Myers-Wall believes. The advice she offers is advice many schools have already taken: watch closely and provide counseling when necessary.

It can be a tricky line.

Psychologist Gil G. Noam, who is also an associate professor of education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, cautioned against presuming that children need to talk.

“It’s equally important for children to be given the space not to talk,” he said. “As adults, we need to monitor when kids need to express themselves, but it’s also very important for them to be able to move away from some of the incredible pain by simply focusing on tasks at school.”

Many students find it healing to engage in an activity that creates something positive, such as planting a tree for each person lost to the school, Ms. Myers- Walls said. Older children often want to translate their anger and fear into action, so offering such channeling opportunities would be a good step for middle and high school administrators, she said.

At Maryland’s Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Rockville, part of the 136,000-student Montgomery County school district, adults didn’t have to invent those opportunities; students found them for themselves.

Principal David I. Steinberg said that in the days after six students lost relatives, students organized a blood drive and came up with a plan to make and sell red, white, and blue lapel ribbons during homecoming to raise money for the disaster-relief fund.

To encourage the circulation of thoughts and feelings about the attacks, each day at morning announcements, Mr. Steinberg reads a short essay written by a student. Counselors are inconspicuously touching base with students once or twice a week, he said.

“I want them to get the idea that we understand their strong feelings about what happened, and that we are going to take care of each other,” he said.

Those who manage schools serving the youngest children are taking a different route toward handling their grief. Norma Frushon, the director of Academy Preschool in Middletown, N.J., south of New York City, where three children lost their fathers, is instructing teachers to lead activities that are more creative and more physical than usual to let children vent their feelings.

In their read-aloud time, teachers are including stories such as one about a beloved grandfather who died, she said, to allow the children to express grief and ask questions about death. The pupils whose fathers died have been coloring in special books designed to let them express difficult feelings, including pages that ask them to draw faces of happiness, sadness, and anger, sketch a picture of a special person they lost, and draw a nice memory they shared with a special grown-up.

“We understand that the children are feeling abandoned, angry, and fearful,” Ms. Frushon said.

Adults Need Help

Even as school employees and parents work to ensure a good environment for the grieving children in their charge, many are struggling to manage their own sadness. A teacher at a school in Manhasset lost her son. The director of guidance at Xavier High lost her sister-in-law. Districts are trying in various ways to shore up their staffs, but some educators and psychologists warn that school employees’ own emotional needs aren’t getting enough attention. (See related story, Page 1.)

Even those who have been spared a death among immediate family or friends can still suffer from absorbing so much sorrow around them. Ms. Lee of Xavier High said that administrators there have been looking drawn and tired.

“They go to sometimes two memorial services a day,” she said. The headmaster, whose close relations with many school families encompass decades, she noted, “is trying to be strong for all of us, but it’s starting to drain him.”

Mr. Knowlton of the Summit schools in New Jersey said that one of the challenges in the longer haul after the crisis will be ensuring that all adults in the school community get the help they need. Parents are showing signs of strain, he said, after weeks of focusing on helping their children.

“Getting through the first week was hard, but handling the long term will be harder, and we haven’t figured out yet how to do that,” Mr. Knowlton said. “The biggest thing will be to get people to acknowledge that things aren’t back to normal, and that they need some help. They need to know it’s OK to admit you’re not OK.”

Such difficulties have forged closer bonds, forming a collective strength much in need, administrators said.

“There is a feeling of compassion for each other that is in the air,” said Mr. Bozzomo of the Manhasset schools on Long Island. “People greet each other differently now. I saw it in the first week. You don’t just glance at people. You look at each other and genuinely say, ‘How are you doing?’ and touch the other person’s arm.

“There is a feeling of loss,” he said, “and yet a feeling that something’s been discovered. The community is united in ways I never thought it could be.”

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