At Hancock Elementary School last week, one upset kindergartner blurted out to a teacher than he was afraid his “daddy’s ship” was going to be bombed out of Persian Gulf waters and, even if his father survived the attack, sharks would eat him.
Nearby, at Farb Middle School, teachers and counselors are seeing an unusual number of students scuffling with classmates or not paying attention in class because of the stress of having a parent deployed to the Middle East. One girl tearfully told her mother that a teacher had said her Navy father was “going to die” after she misinterpreted a current-events discussion about Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
Hancock, Farb and neighboring Miller Elementary sit in the middle of Murphy Canyon Heights, the sprawling U.S. Navy housing complex at the southern end of Tierrasanta, home to 10,000 enlisted-men’s families, many of whom already have personal stakes in the growing U.S. military presence overseas. Although they are public schools of the San Diego Unified School District, almost all of the students have at least one parent in the military.
As such, these year-round schools are finding that the deployment of San Diego-based Navy ships to the Persian Gulf has special meaning and has brought new challenges.
Efforts to set up student counseling and train teachers to spot deployment-related troubles are being matched by some Fallbrook and Oceanside schools--hard by the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton--as they plan for the opening of traditional-calendar schools early next month.
The goal is to keep school as an island of stability and nurturing for students as their families undergo strains.
“Even if kids don’t have family members who are going to be affected by the deployment, they are going to be affected by their peers” who do, said Jennifer Jeffries, director of educational services at Fallbrook Union Elementary School District.
“We want to make sure that we get involved early in the game because we know that this situation can really affect how the kids work in school.”
Fallbrook counselor Bonny Beach added: “If the students are not (focused on school) but are always operating from a base of fear, they won’t be able to concentrate on learning.” Mary Fay Pendleton and San Onofre elementary schools serve 1,600 children of Marines, and three Oceanside schools on Camp Pendleton enroll 2,000.
The year-round schools in Tierrasanta, with almost 3,000 students among them, have seen the effects mushroom during the past two weeks.
“We had our regular Monday morning flag assembly (two weeks ago) where we recognize our good citizens of the week, and I remember starting to notice something different about the children,” Hancock Principal Sally Collier said.
“I told the children that we needed to acknowledge what was going on and that the best thing the kids could do was to do the best job possible at school, that school was their job while their dads and moms have jobs overseas,” Collier said. She estimated that perhaps as many as half a dozen students in each of more than 2 dozen classrooms have a parent now overseas in direct connection with the Persian Gulf crisis.
“We are used to deployments, since ships go out all the time for six months, and we have children upset about that, but this is a little different,” Collier said. The school encourages students to talk about their feelings with someone they trust, whether a teacher, the nurse, counselors or other peers who share the same anxieties.
“And it’s not just the students,” Collier said. “We have one teacher whose brother is on the (aircraft carrier) Independence and who visited us last year in connection with career day. So again, there’s that personal touch because a lot of kids met him.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Charles Hogan, who spends each morning at Hancock, advises teachers to be factual when students pour out their concerns, to tread a fine line between overreacting and not dealing with real fears.
“It’s best to listen, but don’t try to give them unrealistic advice,” said Hogan, whose private practice in North County includes many military families.
“If they ask if their daddy is going to be safe, I would tell them that their dad has been trained to his job, and that their fathers feel they know how to do the job, so we have to trust that they will be OK and know what they are supposed to do.
“Sure, we’d like to reassure the child that everyone will be safe but we just don’t know. . . . It’s hard for teachers as well. The key is to try to keep things as normal as possible, to stay to a routine as much as we can.”
Farb Middle School counselor David Warren and his staff have put together an advisory program for teachers to help them with teen-age concerns, which often focus on abstract meanings of life and its uncertainties. In particular, he hopes that the school can avoid putting extra burdens on Navy family support workers, who have their hands full already with adults’ fears. Already, Warren and his colleagues find, when questioning students about their participation in fights, that an underlying cause is a short fuse fueled by worry about a parent in the military.
At Farb, history teacher Birney Groom has found students paying much more attention lately to CNN Newsroom, a special 15-minute daily CNN program designed for secondary students that he has used for about a year.
“The kids have been real interested the last several weeks, because they’ve heard their parents talking about (the Middle East) at home, and they’re real willing to talk about things,” Groom said. “Hopefully, it’s a way to defuse some rumors.”
But his classroom discussions also show the “fine line” that Hogan said teachers must tread in dealing with emotions.
In an early discussion, Groom asked students how they felt about Saddam Hussein’s ability to affect whether their fathers might be put “in harm’s way.” One parent called to complain after her daughter said that Groom had said her father was “going to die.”
“We talked that one through after the mother realized that I would never say such a thing, but rather was talking about the possibility that American military (personnel) could be placed in danger by Hussein,” he said. “I do think that the kids need an opportunity to talk about the issues.”
In Oceanside, district psychologist Gene Ramos said some younger students “may even get into talking about, ‘Well, if (Daddy’s) killed, what does that mean for me, what does that mean for Mommy? " Ramos said.
The district plans to use its crisis intervention team of counselors at schools if any of these students’ military parents are killed or injured.