In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, educators across the country are faced with helping students deal with the tragedy that touched two American cities and so many lives.
Teachers found themselves grasping for words to reassure students that they were not in danger and to explain the surreal attacks in New York City and Washington, where hijacked jetliners plowed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside.
In New York City, six schools are in the vicinity of where the World Trade Center stood. At Stuyvesant High, only a few blocks from what is now known as Ground Zero, students watched the attacks and explosions from their classrooms before being evacuated. Other students in lower Manhattan watched waves of adults sprinting down the streets and black clouds of dust that closed out the sky.
In the Washington, D.C., area, students watched the disaster in New York unfold on TV; when the news told of the attack on the Pentagon, they turned and watched the smoke rising beyond classroom windows. According to the Washington Post, classrooms were temporarily locked down. Some students, unsure of the scope of the attacks, guarded the school doors.
Students whose parents worked in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon struggled to get in touch with them. Parents in both locations rushed to pick up their children. Most schools in New York City and Washington remained open, officials feeling school was the safest place for students. Some schools in New York had lights on throughout the evening for children whose parents couldn’t reach the schools.
Although schools remained open, the day was anything but normal. It was filled with television broadcasts and makeshift discussions on what was unfolding in front of students’ eyes. Officials gave tips to their staffs and brought in experts something that no doubt will continue. At one school in New Jersey, the parents’ association sent an eMail asking any parent that was able to come to school to counsel students.
In the days following the tragedies, schools in New York City and Washington were closed, more for reasons of anguish than of safety, as school officials knew that some of their students had lost parents in the attacks. Three students and three teachers from D.C. Public Schools were among the 64 people killed when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. The student-teacher group was on its way to Santa Cruz Island for an educational field trip.
Students are still trying to come to grips with the losses and the images they saw. One child, the New York Times reports, said he couldn’t sleep anymore because “every time he closed his eyes he saw people jumping out of the building again.”
Besides the emotional trauma students are experiencing, schools in New York are facing difficult logistical problems. Three thousand Stuyvesant students are now attending classes in Brooklyn, at a school that has 4,700 of its own students.
Some parents believe the crowded settings will only add to the stress students are feeling. But others, including some students, believe a normal routine helps them deal with the tragedy. As one first grader said, “Now I have a school. I’m not schoolless.”
The U.S. Department of Education has pledged millions of dollars in Project SERV grants to school systems directly impacted by the attacks in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Project SERV grants are intended to provide grief couseling assistance and related support services to local school districts that have experienced a traumatic event.
Secretary of Education Rod Paige traveled to New York on Sept. 17 to tour schools and meet with kids and educators.
“This is just the first step in our effort to help the children of New York City and the teachers who come to school each day to help them learn,” Paige said in a statement. “These schools will be offering the children they serve important counseling services as they grapple with the horrifying damage and unspeakable loss that this area has suffered.”
But this wasn’t a tragedy that touched only a handful of school districts. Across the country, schools debated whether or not to cancel classes, afterschool activities, or sporting events.
In Minnesota, principals at several high schools agreed it was best to tell their students as much as possible, but elementary school principals wrestled with the dilemma of what to tell young children. One K-4 school decided to let parents discuss the issue with students, sending notes home with the children.
Staff at the Pierz Pioneer Elementary decided to make the best of the tragic situation. “They used it as a teachable moment,” said Galen Swoboda, principal of the K-6 school. “We live in America. We think we’re safe. They had some pretty frank discussions in their classrooms.”
Swoboda said officials let fourth- through sixth-graders watch the news with teachers on the morning of the attacks. He met with teachers at noon and they decided to tell the younger children what was going on. They did not want children to get scared when they heard about it from the older kids on the bus ride home.
Another Minnesota school with students in grades 7-12 let students watch the news and later opened a room so that students who wanted to discuss the events could do so with an adult on hand.
Some schools, like those in Knoxville, Tenn., were locked down on the afternoon of the attacks. Police cars patrolled outside. The news media was barred from campuses to keep schools running smoothly.
“This is an emotional time,” said Bob Archer, city schools associate superintendent. “We have to be very sensitive to the children so we don’t create hysteria.”
In the days following the attacks, schools worked to calm students’ fears by making psychologists and counselors available to meet with students. Some schools opened with classroom discussions of the tragedy before moving ahead with the day’s lessons and extracurricular activities. Televisions were turned off.
“When [students] have a visual experience, it sticks with them longer,” said Thomas Doland, supervisor of psychological services in the Chesterfield County, Va., public schools. “It almost becomes etched in their memory.”
Throughout Norfolk, Va., as in many other communities, school counselors “were asked to postpone all other responsibilities except being available to students,” said Joyce Beamon, senior coordinator of guidance and school counseling.
“There are going to be a lot of angry kids, and we need to help them understand that it’s OK to experience the anger, but not to act it out,” said Susan Gorin, executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. “As a country, we’ve never experienced this.”
Teachers were advised to listen patiently to children’s concerns, answer their questions in an honest but age-appropriate manner, and reassure them that they are safe at home and at school.
“We want to encourage children to talk, and the best way to do that is through listening,” said Frank Kirchner, a child psychiatrist, Eastern Virginia Medical School professor, and consultant for public schools. “If we’re good listeners, we will respond to the question and not flood them with our own fears and anxieties and give them more information than they’re asking for.”
He said children are experiencing the same emotions as adults”shock, disbelief, anger, helplessness. The whole gamut of human emotions.”
Many schools have been forced to call off class trips, both in the United States and abroad, because of uncertainty created by the attacks. School officials also warned students and parents that if security concerns about flights continue, trips scheduled for later in the year could also be canceled.
The annual La Crosse (Wis.) Central High School junior and senior class trip to Washington, D.C., was canceled for the first time in 32 years, said Brent Larson, a government and global issues teacher who coordinated the trip.
“I did have several calls from concerned parents and this obviously weighed in on our decision,” Larson said. “We just thought there are too many uncertainties to take kids out there at this time.”
Wauwatosa, Wis., School Superintendent Robert Slotterback said the U.S. State Department issued warnings about the safety of large groups of Americans traveling overseas, putting in doubt the Wauwatosa East High School orchestra’s planned trip Oct. 17 to Dublin and London.
“I told parents that there is a good chance that I will have to call off this trip,” Slotterback said, noting that trip costs of $2,250 per student may not be refundable. He said student safety is more important than money.
Material from the Associated Press was used in compiling this report.