School violence, terrorism, and natural disasters are all crises that have the potential to affect school-aged children. With advanced planning, schools and communities can actively prepare to respond quickly to catastrophic events, and in many cases prevent them from ever happening. To help with this process, EDC’s National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention (NCMHPYVP) is working with its school- and community-based grantees to create the systems and infrastructure to prevent, prepare for, and respond to crisis situations. This effort is part of its goal of assisting grantees to use the most effective strategies in promoting mental health and reducing youth violence.
One extreme example of a crisis that powerfully affected students is last year’s hurricane devastation. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused devastating loss of life, homes, and jobs. Survivors of the hurricanes are still working to rebuild their lives. Almost 400,000 Hurricane Katrina survivors were displaced to new towns and states, and children especially faced upheaval in their young lives as they attended new schools hundreds of miles away from home. Ten thousand of these children enrolled in Houston, Texas-area schools. Many had witnessed the devastation of the storm, lost loved ones and homes, and were suffering from mental and physical trauma. Their pain and loss was compounded when, only months after moving to Houston, Hurricane Rita forced evacuations and further disrupted their already-fragile lives.
EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs (HHD) has long advocated that school systems are an excellent place for reaching children for health promotion and is using this approach to encourage schools to prepare for disasters by creating infrastructure in advance. Because so many of Houston’s services for hurricane-affected children were provided through the school system, HHD conducted an in-depth interview with staff from the DePelchin Children’s Center who worked in partnership the Houston-area schools in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The interview allowed us to share with other school districts DePelchin’s experiences working with the Houston schools and providing services to displaced children and their families.
DePelchin’s experience provides many useful strategies for schools and communities to prepare for emergencies. For instance, the Houston-area school system was quick to provide services to the displaced children because they had the infrastructure in place to deal with disasters and their aftermath. Working in partnership with DePelchin, the schools responded quickly to accept displaced children by relaxing enrollment regulations and opening classroom space, and deal with their mental health needs by providing trauma relief services. Recognizing that the needs of the hurricane victims and the Houston community are long-standing and evolving, DePelchin continues to provide ongoing trauma information for students and parents, professional seminars for teachers on burnout and emergency preparedness, and additional mental health workers to Houston-area schools.
“Working together, the schools and DePelchin provided services to students who most needed trauma relief. Teachers and staff referred students to DePelchin mental health workers for individual consults at the school. DePelchin offered each Houston-area school six group therapy sessions for displaced students and trauma information sessions for parents and teachers, all free of charge, ” according to Lou Ann Mock, Clinical Director of the Trauma Program at DePelchin Children’s Center.
The Houston response was exemplary because the school system formed a solid working relationship with DePelchin long before the hurricanes hit. Their planning and partnership included training trauma professionals in schools before the crises; therefore, the schools were ready and able to work with them once the hurricanes struck. With the infrastructure already in place, Houston was able to respond immediately and effectively and help so many children through the school system.
NCMHPYVP is using the experiences and advice of DePelchin to guide their grantees in preparing to prevent and respond to a wide array of crises. For example, NCMHPYVP has created a resource page dedicated to preventing, preparing for, and responding to crises in schools that emphasizes the importance of having a school safety and response plan in place, and also features resources dedicated to talking about traumatic events and managing anxiety. In addition, NCMHPYVP is providing technical assistance to schools on disaster preparedness and has created published briefs to guide schools in formulating their prevention, preparedness, and response plans. They have also facilitated conference calls between Safe Schools/Healthy Students grantees and DePelchin staff to hear firsthand how Houston responded to the crisis and what they learned in the process. Finally, NCMHPYVP created a web page dedicated to providing resources for families forced to relocate due to the hurricanes.
For more information on HHD’s National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention and their work with schools on disaster preparedness, please contact Kim Netter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published on July 1, 2006