Countywide Collaboration Underscores Response to Help Others

September 17, 2001
In the wake of the terrorist attack on the United States last week, the Montgomery County Public Schools, along with individual schools and offices, local government and non-profit agencies, continue to work together to cope with the crisis and its aftermath.

The greatest immediate impact of the tragedy was felt by staff at individual schools, as parents from around the county came to retrieve children on the day of the terrorist attacks. School secretaries, teachers, principals, bus drivers, and others became immediate grief counselors to students and parents as the shock of events rippled through the system.

After schools were closed for a day, a support structure was in place to help meet the needs of school-based staff in dealing with their own grief and anxiety, even as they addressed the needs of students.

Individual schools also began efforts to provide assistance to rescue and recovery efforts, through fund raising, letter writing, and donations of needed supplies. Expressions of remembrances and patriotism were evident throughout the school system with student-painted flags, banners, posters, and special events, including assemblies and candlelight vigils.

Efforts continue this week to counsel students and staff and provide resources to individual communities. Central office staff members trained to deal with crises initially were joined by a special cadre of mental health professionals from throughout the county to assist individual schools. Special resources, including guides for helping children cope with crisis, videotapes, website materials, hotlines and other intervention services, were provided to the MCPS community.

“There are no words to express adequately the immense sense of grief in response to the tragedy that has struck our nation and our community,” Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said in a letter to parents and staff. “Many of our students and staff and their families have suffered loss and injury among relatives and friends in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.”

“When you really get down to it, it’s how human beings interact with one another that is going to help us get through these trying times,” the superintendent said.

Dr. Weast told principals and mental health professionals at meetings on the day schools were closed [Wednesday, September 12] that the school system’s response to the crisis must be “inclusive of all of students and staff in our diverse community.”

Of particular concern to the school system were the vulnerable populations of students and staff who have family or friends who may have been connected with the attacks in some way. Also, concerns were raised about immigrant students and families who have been exposed to terrorist attacks in their native countries. Thousands of MCPS students and many teachers and other staff members are from other countries, and many may have witnessed firsthand what is now happening in the United States.

When principals met on the day schools were closed, they worked to organize school responses in each community. They also received packets containing information to counsel students and staff, including information for parents on helping children cope with crisis. In addition, student government leaders were enlisted to develop strategies to work with their classmates. Videotapes to help teachers and staff were telecast on MCPS Instructional Television.

The Department of Student Services (DSS) prepared the information packets to help school mental health professionals and others deal with the situation. Many of the materials were translated by the ESOL office into multiple languages for distribution to schools and posting on the Internet. One such publication, “Helping Children Cope with Crisis,” is available on the school system’s website.

The countywide mental health efforts and counseling services were initiated by the Office of Student and Community Services in collaboration with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services and the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County. The efforts involved mental heath professionals from a range of county agencies, including Youth Service Centers, Family Services, Linkages to Learning, Community Kids, Child Center, Adult Services, Collaboration Council, Infants and Toddlers, and others.

Planning the initiative began the day of the attacks and coordination efforts continued throughout the week. The efforts included psychologists, pupil personnel workers, counselors, community outreach staff, special educators, ESOL staff and employee assistance representatives.

The Office of Student and Community Services assigned staff members to each community superintendent’s office so that, as schools requested additional assistance, teams of MCPS and community mental health professionals responded.

“I have been very impressed with the responsiveness of so many staff, parents, students and members of the public to the needs of our educational community,” Dr. Weast said. “Their gracious interest in the well-being of others provides an example for all of us as the events affecting our nation continue to unfold.”

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