School Climate & Safety

Schools Struggle With What to Tell Students About a Day of Terror

By Darcia Harris Bowman — September 19, 2001 6 min read
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Bailey Disselkoen began hearing rumors at lunch.

Throughout the morning of Sept. 11, the 8th grader at Carl Sandburg Middle School in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., watched as children were summoned from classes to the principal’s office. Some returned; others did not.

Offering no explanations, teachers continued with the day’s lessons while students exchanged puzzled glances. One of Bailey’s teachers finally broke the silence in the early afternoon. Two hijacked planes had smashed through the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, she told students. Another crashed in rural Pennsylvania, and a fourth hit a wing of the Pentagon in neighboring Arlington, Va.

“She cried, and a lot of the kids in our class, their eyes were red, and they cried, too,” the 13-year-old recalled on Wednesday of last week, the day after the attacks. “I think part of us was scared, part was angry, and part couldn’t believe it.”

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Similar scenes played out in schools across the country as word of last week’s devastating terrorist strikes trickled into classrooms. Even as adults in the schools struggled to come to grips with the news and sort fact from fiction, many had to make quick decisions about what was best for students.

In some schools, administrators told teachers not to discuss the attacks and to continue with normal class activities until students could be released to their parents. Others ordered all televisions turned off. Still others allowed teachers to make their own decisions about how to break the news to students.

Just as Pearl Harbor left its imprint on the World War II generation, the events of last week will leave an indelible mark on the psyches of today’s children and adolescents—regardless of their proximity to New York City or Washington, many experts say. But schools can play a crucial role in easing the impact, they say, when teachers and administrators are calm, honest, and compassionate.

“Kids take their cues from adults, so it’s important for teachers to get their emotional house in order so they can express calm and confidence,” said James Garbarino, the author of the newly published book Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child’s Life.

“That’s where leadership is important,” added Mr. Garbarino, a professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “Principals and counselors need to keep track of how things are going and step in where there’s a teacher who isn’t handling things well.”

TV Wars

For the tens of millions of Americans who were not near ground zero, television provided endless loops of wrenching images to drive home the tragedy: a body plummeting from atop a burning building, a plane slicing through a glass skyscraper, survivors weeping as they picked their way through the rubble in Lower Manhattan.

Such scenes prompted many educators and child psychologists to warn parents and teachers not to give children of any age long periods of unsupervised TV time.

“I don’t think it does any of us any good to look at the TV for hours and watch the horror, but definitely do not let young children watch hours and hours of television coverage,” said Scott Poland, a former president of the National Association of School Psychologists and the director of the psychological-services department for the 64,000-student Cypress-Fairbanks schools near Houston.

Cutting off students’ television access was the first action many principals and superintendents took. Los Angeles Superintendent Ray Romer, in a memo advising teachers to turn off classroom televisions, said students “who view hours of ... human suffering are highly at risk for psychological damage.”

Some schools took the opposite approach. Sarah Turner, a 5th grader at Ben W. Murch Elementary School in Washington, said her teacher explained what had occurred and allowed students to ask questions. Afterward, the teacher turned on the news and let her students see for themselves what was happening.

Sarah’s father, John Turner, said he didn’t mind that his daughter had seen the news before they talked, and he praised school officials and teachers for how they handled the day. “I was assuming ... they would tell the kids what happened,” he said. “We’ll talk about it more when we get home, of course.”

With scenes of violence already ubiquitous in the news and entertainment media, children’s discussions with adults could be the key to helping youngsters comprehend what they’re seeing on TV when such events are reported.

“I don’t think many of the kids grasp the full meaning of this—I heard some students saying it looked like a Bruce Willis movie,” said Thomas J. Doland, the supervisor of school psychologists for the 51,000-student Chesterfield schools outside Richmond, Va. “There’s a certain degree of desensitization with this generation.”

Questions and Answers

Most experts say educators should not try to shield children from the truth in times of tragedy or disaster. Teachers should answer students’ questions—taking into consideration what’s appropriate for the age group—and let them express their feelings and concerns.

“The wise teacher would put all the desks in a circle, give students the facts as they’re known ... and let kids talk about it and express themselves,” said Mr. Poland, the chief psychologist for the Cypress-Fairbanks district. “I often find that administrators don’t necessarily tell kids the truth, or they delay a little. But we want kids to hear bad news from trusted adults.”

Some schools decided last week that silence was the best approach—at least initially.

Terri Boyd, whose 13-year-old daughter, Alexandra B. Knoppel, attends Sandburg Middle School in the 165,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district with Bailey Disselkoen, said teachers’ decisions not to discuss the attacks left some students scared and confused.

“They didn’t let [students] talk about it either. I found that disturbing,” Ms. Boyd said. “There should have been some ... explaining things to them.”

Paul Regnier, the spokesman for the Fairfax County schools, said the district let each of its principals decide whether and how to tell students about the terrorist attacks.

“We feel teachers and principals know their schools best and know what’s best for their students,” he said. “It’s a difficult call to make. We know pretty well how to deal with crises, but this is the first crisis we’ve had that was systemwide.”

When students returned to schools last Thursday in Arlington, Va., officials encouraged teachers to use the day’s first period to let students discuss the attacks. But afterward, it was back to blackboards and books.

“We want to give students time to ask questions and express their concerns, but then we’re encouraging teachers to move into normal classroom routine as much as possible,” said Linda Erdos, a spokeswoman for the 19,000-student Arlington County district just across the Potomac River from Washington. “We really think the kids need that routine.”

But for many schools, a return to normal times may be years away.

It’s been more than six years since a terrorist’s truck bomb tore through a federal office building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people, but counselors in that community’s schools say some students’ wounds run deep.

“We are still recovering, we’re still talking to children to see what they need in terms of additional counseling, and our tragedy was terrible, terrible beyond imagination,” said Roberta J. Gaston, the director of guidance and counseling for the 40,000-student Oklahoma City school district.

“I can’t even give you the words to describe what the impact will be for those schools directly affected” in last week’s attacks, she said. “Our whole country will be dealing with this for a very long time. We just need to reassure our children that they’re safe.”

Staff Writers Lisa Fine and Linda Jacobson contributed to this report.


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