November 2011 Issue
October 27, 2011

For flood victims, school is safe harbor

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Teacher's aide Nick Merwin helps a young student find the right size among donated clothing collected in the gym at a Gilboa-Conesville Central Schools building. School psychologists, social workers and nurses are helping flood victims realize that school is a safe landing place. Skip Dickstein/Times Union

When a group of seventh-graders in flood-ravaged Broome County were asked if they were affected directly by the flood, or knew someone who was, "every hand shot up," said Barb Mullen, a middle school social worker in the Johnson City district.

"The kids were very aware of the damage done," Mullen said.

Many students are sleeping on friends' or neighbors' couches. Some have lost their homes; others must wait for major renovations. Clothes, books and toys are gone.

The number one goal is to provide kids with consistency, a sense of belonging and routine. "School can give them that sense of continuity; that they're still part of a neighborhood, they're still part of a community and they are able to stay connected to their friends," she said.

"Children should be made to feel as if the hours they spend in school are part of their security blanket," said Peter Faustino, president of the New York Association of School Psychologists.

In Johnson City, a Giving Tree set up during open house provided needed items specified by flood victims. Families were also encouraged to bring in gently used clothes, and at Parent-Teacher Conference Day, families in need could then fill up a bag for $1.

Many students have new bus routes to temporary homes and end up with extra time at school. Arrangements have been made for youngsters to go to a community day care; Mullen paired stranded middle school students with an elementary school librarian to mentor readers.

She hopes to create a student support group, where flood victims can talk, write and create art to help understand the experience.

"Be on the lookout for stress warning signs and make referrals to the school psychologist, social worker or other mental health professionals," advised Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president who oversees health care programs.

Some flood victims are just beginning to show stress. Faustino, NYASP president and Bedford school psychologist, calls it "the sleeper effect." Children deal with immediate problems, and only later begin to have feelings of loss or fear.

Security and normalcy are further undermined when an entire community is ravaged. Behavioral changes include:

  • Preschoolers: Thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior and withdrawal from friends and routines.
  • Elementary school children: Irritability, aggressiveness, clinging, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration and withdrawal.
  • Adolescents: Sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior and poor concentration.

Victoria Mosetti, a laid-off Rochester school psychologist, said educators can ensure students are staying in a safe place by keeping open lines of communication with the student and parents and, perhaps, visiting the temporary home.

Mullen provided resources to families on Social Services, mental health, flood relief and family violence prevention. Since many district employees have had homes destroyed, she also gave colleagues information about counseling, assistance available from relief organizations, and the district's Employee Assistance Program.

The first responders at the high school evacuation center were teachers, support staff, school nurses and administrators. "They were there before the Red Cross was there," Mullen said.

Now, however, "people are tired. The shock is wearing off; now it's reality."