Paramus school bus crash: Helping children cope with trauma and tragedy
East Brook Middle School was a place of quiet on Friday.
There was a quiet room, “a safe space,” for students to regroup, another quiet room for staff to collect themselves or just sit and talk.
There were extra counselors on hand for those who needed them.
The support system for schools dealing with tragedy comes together quickly. In particularly traumatic events that involve the unexpected death of a student or teacher, the support continues for some time, said Maureen Brogan, the statewide coordinator for the Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth, a network of professionals trained in school trauma response.
“For many children, this may be the first time they’ve encountered death of any kind,” Brogan said. “There’s an element of innocence where they don’t think these things happen. When it does, it kind of shatters their assumptions that they’re safe in this world. You want to afford students an opportunity to stabilize their emotions.”
The coalition, a program of Rutgers University, has been dispatched to help the Paramus middle school cope with the fatal school bus crash that killed a fifth-grade girl and teacher on Thursday, Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for Bergen County confirmed Friday.
The county often reaches out to the group to determine where additional mental health specialists should be sent, she said.
The tactics the coalition uses to counsel students offer insight into how adults — whether parents or not — can help children cope.
Counselors encourage students to express their emotions creatively, through drawing or music or writing, and frequently use breathing exercises and mindfulness activities to relax them physically.
“We want them to feel the sadness and then work through the sadness,” Brogan said. “We want to help them with their bodies, help them understand that this may be why you have a headache or stomachache. It’s your body saying it’s struggling.”
Adult behavior, both of staff and parents, is crucial for helping young students heal, she said. Children need to see adults crying, picking themselves up and continuing to live their lives to be able to do the same.
“They need to see that you’re still going to work and you’re smiling and you’re still teaching and you’re still talking about the good things,” Brogan said. “It gives them the sense that, ‘OK, I can cry too but I also will be able to breathe and regroup myself.’”
Counselors will urge parents to minimize exposure to images or video of the bus crash and stick to pre-trauma routines, she said. Keeping regular dinner and bed times will provide a level of predictability after an unpredictable event.
“We’re hoping to build back up that sense of safety,” Brogan said.
Brogan said the coalition is supporting the middle school’s existing crisis management team and providing additional counselors. Since July of last year, the coalition has been called to more than 85 schools reeling from trauma.
New Jersey schools and their internal crisis management teams are generally well prepared to handle losses, but when there is a highly publicized event that impacts more than one individual and involves witnesses, young children and beloved staff, schools might need more emotional assistance, Brogan said.
“This is not only children dealing with the loss of a fellow student but also the loss of a teacher that for many of them, was their favorite teacher,” Brogan said. “Crisis teams go through a lot of training, they know how to respond to this. The wringer is when it hits your school district — there’s that attachment where you’re also impacted by the loss and you need other people to support the people who are supporting the students.”
The coalition works with schools on a temporary basis; sometimes staying for a day or two, sometimes for weeks.
When Edgewater contacted the coalition in 2016, counselors stayed for several days to help students at George Washington Elementeary School process the murder of Mellie Stasko, an 8-year-old student at the school, said superintendent Kerry Postma.
The school had its own guidance counselor and two psychologists on staff but they were also emotionally impacted by the tragedy, she said.
“Just to have that outside support and the ability to team up was helpful,” Postma said.
Together, the group first met with classes to discuss the death and then extended an invitation to students to visit them in a designated room to speak in private.
“There’s such a range of reactions,” Postma said. “Some students don’t want to talk about it all, some students want to talk about it a lot. Just being there, letting them know that they have somebody to talk to is the most important thing.”
Right now, the grief at East Brook Middle School is overwhelming, Brogan said. But there will come a day when loss is no longer felt in its classrooms.
“That’s part of the way the human works: we are survivors,” Brogan said. “It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be today, but the hallways will be filled with laughter again and there will be celebration and that will be the new normal.”
Published by The Record/NorthJersey.com, May 2018. Photos by Tariq Zehawi and Marko Georgiev.