Getting Past the Pain

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For those at the center of a tragedy, healing is a day-to-day process that can take on the uncertain twists and turns of a road with no end. They say that time heals, but some who have not gone through a catastrophic event in their life may not understand that time is not always enough.

For the students of Lee High School in Huntsville, Ala., the year since a school bus carrying 43 students crashed 40 feet off a highway overpass, killing four of their classmates, has been difficult. At the same time, it has shown the country what a tight-knit community can do to support its members since the Nov. 20 accident.

“I’ve always felt very blessed to live here, but to see it really galvanize our community, that to me is really affirming,” said Nancy Fortner, guidance services coordinator for Huntsville City Schools. “This crisis did not and still does not have an ending point. The main thing is we want our kids to know we’re here for them.”

Preparing for Tragedy
Since 1995, Huntsville City Schools has had a Emotional Crisis Management plan in place to deal with the emotional residue when crises occur — death, suicide, accidents and natural disasters. To help students and faculty during the immediate time following a crisis, the district created a step-by-step process that involves its 73 school counselors as well as administrators, central office staff and principals. The schools also develop individual crisis teams that deal with the specific issues.

“We have found over the years that when crises occur, everyone shifts into an emotional mode,” said Fortner. “When the school bus accident happened, I received a call from (Superintendent) Dr. Moore within minutes and we shifted into gear. This was a situation where we were immediately on all different fronts. There was the crash site, the second bus that witnessed the accident that returned to Lee High School, and our students were in three different hospitals. So we had to be in five different places, and we needed to be there immediately.“

The district kept 25 of its trained counselors at Lee for a week following the crash. After losing two students at the crash site, another student later that afternoon and one the next day, the campus community needed as much support as the district — and soon others — could give.

The Community Comes Together
Kelsia Smith of the Caring House, a local charity that provides a safe place for children and parents to deal with the death of family members, called Fortner soon after the crash to offer assistance. Two weeks later, Smith, the center’s coordinator, was contacted and the Caring House began offering grieve support, training for teachers on how to deal with their students who have experienced a loss and on-site grief support groups.

“We initiated a group called Helping Hearts to provide a safe environment within the schools where kids could come and talk about what they have experienced,” said Smith. “They are peer-support-based groups, where the kids help each other through this process. Teenagers tend to draw closer to their peers and away from their parents.”

The group discusses past losses, address the affects of trauma on learning and offers the members tools in an effort to work through their feelings of sadness, anger, regret, guilt or resentment. Members also talk about self-care; how to be emotionally healthy; coping strategies like exercise, prayer and journaling; learning to admit that they need help; and recognizing and accepting their limitations.

“We know that being a teenager is difficult enough, and we don’t want the kids to develop unhealthy and/or self-soothing behaviors. It has taken a lot of courage for those students to be able to continue with getting through school. A lot of the students have told me that they want to be able to get back to a normal routine, and I think that’s very important within the healing process,” said Smith.

“Young people are rather resilient, and I think normalcy helps them get beyond their grief and sorrow,” added Dr. Ann Moore, Huntsville’s superintendent. “I think they’ve managed to get as far away from it as you can get. They still miss their friends.”

National Support
Two days after the accident, Fortner received a message from Bill Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education, saying he wanted to help. Through the U.S. DOE, the district was awarded a Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence) grant. The project is an outgrowth of the Columbine shootings in 1999.

“I was frustrated that I didn’t have a mechanism to provide (Columbine High School) with resources that were necessary in a quick way. That’s when we developed Project SERV. We’ve awarded 50 grants since 2001, including ones to New York City after 9/11 and school districts in the south after Hurricane Katrina,” said Modzeleski.

The grants provide support for the students, immediate families, faculty and staff that were affected by a tragedy. The money can be used for substitute teachers, increased security, training and counseling.

“These funds are to help restore the learning environment,” said Modzeleski. “This was an accident that devastated the school system and had an upsetting affect on not only the school they attended but the entire school district.”

The district began receiving the $50,000 grant this past January. Although the program was initially scheduled to last six months, they were able to obtain an extension from the DOE until July 2008, according to Fortner.

The national attention caused by the accident also came in another form, one the students could embrace. Hugs Across America was formed after the World Trade Center disaster. A teacher in Manhattan discovered that giving her students teddy bears helped to ease their fear and anxiety. The initial gestured has turned into a national charitable organization that brings stuffed bears to disaster survivors, grieving families and victims of violent crimes.

“The Monday after the crisis, a U-haul pulls up and there are teddy bears for every student. These high school kids carried those teddy bears around all the time; I saw one the other day. That was a wonderful outgrowth,” said Fortner.

Reprinted from the November 2007 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.