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04-17-12: Crisis Support Team helps schools during healing process
04-17-12: Crisis Support Team helps schools during healing process

When a crisis strikes, especially the sudden death of a student or teacher, grieving children and adults often turn to the school district’s Crisis Support Team for help.

The 13-member team, made up of school counselors and a school psychologist, stands ready to be sent out on a moment’s notice to provide support and compassion to students and staff dealing with varying levels of emotional distress.

Most recently, the team found itself at Carson Elementary for five days in February. The team helped counsel students and provided support for teachers after the death of first grader Charlie Powell and his younger brother, Braden.

Bev Showacy, an elementary counseling coordinator who has served on the Crisis Support Team for 14 years, received a phone call from a district administrator on a Sunday night that the boys had died in a house fire.

Showacy co-chairs the Crisis Support Team with Glacier View Junior High counselor Heidi Hobbs. While no crisis is the same, the two recently updated a school district crisis manual that outlines suggested responses and actions to various crisis situations.

Immediately after receiving the call about the student’s death, Showacy mobilized six Crisis Support Team members to be at Carson Elementary before school started the morning after the tragedy.

The goal, she said, is to keep the school day running as smoothly as possible while also providing emotional support.

The team was present for a morning staff meeting, provided individual and group counseling with students throughout the week, and offered breaks as necessary for teachers who also needed time to process the tragedy. Substitute teachers also were on hand when needed, as well as several district administrators.

Showacy prepared a short statement for teachers to read in each of their classes announcing Charlie’s death and had team members standing by in case any of them needed help reading it aloud.

Charlie’s first-grade teacher, John Huson, said the team’s support, both for his students and the school as a whole, was immeasurable.

“Honestly, we couldn’t have done it without them,” Huson said.

Several Crisis Support Team members were in his room, he said, as he announced Charlie’s death and then invited students to talk about his life.

“It was such a tough thing for everyone involved,” he said. “First graders don’t much know how to handle it. I told them we weren’t going to focus on his death, but rather would focus on his life. It was their time to share memories of Charlie.”

The team members also provided the teachers with handouts to explain how students might respond to the death both immediately and in the weeks to come. Grief reactions can range from crying, anger, helplessness, and poor concentration, to fear, guilt, isolation, and nightmares.

As students across the school were overcome with grief or simply needed someone to talk to, the Crisis Support Team met with them individually and in small groups in the school library.

“There is no one way people process grief,” Showacy said. “Sometimes there is anger, especially in older students, while for others there is a lot of sadness and even a lot of confusion.”

On his work break, Huson remembers going to the library to observe the Crisis Support Team and see if he, too, could be of any help to students.

“The entire school needed help, not just my class,” he said. “It hit some of the older kids just as hard as the kids in my class. For many, it brought up memories of painful things in their lives.”

Even now, months after the tragedy, Huson occasionally notices students feeling sad. That’s typical, Hobbs said, of how grief can display itself sometimes months later, or longer.

Both Showacy and Hobbs speak of the value of having students draw pictures or write notes about their feelings. Crayon drawings of stick figures representing Charlie and Braden filled a memorial the days after the tragedy in front of the school, along with stuffed animals, balloons, and candles.

Huson has a photo of Charlie attached to a small basket in the classroom in which students can put drawings or notes for the remainder of this school year. He delivers the students’ work regularly to the boy’s grandparents, Chuck and Judy Cox of Puyallup.

He and the other first-grade teachers also prepared a scrapbook for the grandparents including Charlie’s nametag and other items that were in his desk.

Carson Elementary Counselor Erynn Acree has served on the Crisis Support Team for several years and, for the first time in January, found herself on the receiving end of the support.

“I would not have been able to function without the support of my peers,” she said. “The number of students who needed support was more than I could do myself.”

When a team arrives, she said the home school counselor is simply asked to walk the campus and “keep a pulse” on the school needs. “Often the counselor is in shock too,” Acree said. “I was able to service students the first couple of days, but then I was more and more fatigued.”

She, too, praised the team’s work.

“All week they were so thoughtful and compassionate and guided our staff and students through an amazingly difficult time,” she said. “We are so grateful for their service.”

In a crisis, Hobbs said people need someone who has been trained to provide support. Team members respond to a variety of tragic situations, including deaths surrounding suicide, drug overdoses, car accidents, and sudden illnesses.

Last year, the Crisis Support Team was called to Aylen Junior High after an adult neighbor adjacent to the school committed suicide.

The members counseled with students and also spoke to parents as they picked up their children to share coping strategies of how to deal with a traumatic situation.

“Their quick, caring, and supportive approach was definitely appreciated,” said Aylen Junior High Principal Christine Moloney. “The Crisis Support Team is an essential component of the Puyallup School District’s emergency plan and a service the Aylen community desperately needed and benefited from at that time.”

By the time students reach junior high and high school, they have many more life experiences that can trigger certain emotions or reactions, Hobbs said.

“Friends are important and they turn to them, but it is important to have adults available to help guide them through difficult times,” she said.

All of the team members have been trained in how to respond in a crisis, and Showacy tries to schedule annual refresher courses for all of the district’s counselors.

Hobbs said, “We have been trained, and we are counselors who care about these kids and want to make their day as easy as possible to get through in a tough situation. The counselor in the building can’t do it all.”

The support the team provides for school staff is just as critical, Showacy said. “Often staff members are worried about how they can help their students. They just need someone to help them and say, ‘you’re doing the right thing.’”

Carson Elementary Principal Arturo Gonzalez said the school district is fortunate to have a Crisis Support Team with individuals qualified to address needs that arise in a school setting during traumatic situations like the death of Charlie Powell.

“Children’s emotions and understanding toward a crisis vary greatly,” he said. “The experience and expertise that this team of counselors is able to provide our students during a crisis is reassuring to me as a principal and as a parent.”