Englewood, CO (Vocus) December 23, 2008
School Safety Partners is urging Orange County Public Schools, Florida, to address child psychiatric trauma related to the Caylee Anthony crime scene.
According to Dr. Sonayia Shepherd, a school safety expert with Safe Havens International, the school children attending Hidden Oaks Elementary School face serious mental health issues due to the fact that the remains of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony were found in a wooded area leading up to the school.
Psychiatric trauma involves the creation of emotional memories that are stored in structures deep within the brain, explains Dr. Shepherd. Even second-hand exposure to violence can be traumatic. For this reason, all children and adolescents exposed to violence or a disaster, even if only through graphic media reports, should be watched for signs of emotional distress.
Bus drivers taking children to and from Hidden Oaks Elementary School should be particularly attentive to student behavior as they pass through the woods where Caylee Anthony's body was discarded.
Also, county officials should be on the lookout for signs within the community, such as an increase in child abuse and domestic violence.
Dr. Shepherd warns that children are highly influenced by the emotional state of their caretakers. When the parents or other caretakers of a child are psychologically harmed by the events around them, their emotional state is likely to affect the psychological well-being of the child. Therefore, after a traumatic event, it is important for caretakers and teachers to present poised and calm interactions with children.
Reactions to trauma may appear immediately after the event or days and even weeks later. Loss of trust in adults and fear of the event occurring again are often common responses seen in many children and adolescents who have been exposed to traumatic events.
Dr. Shepherd suggests that handouts be sent out to parents about children and trauma, and that a Spanish translation be included because about 45% of the students attending the school are Hispanic.
The grades offered at Hidden Oaks are pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Reactions vary according to age.
For children 5 years of age and younger, typical reactions can include a fear of being separated from the parent, crying, whimpering, screaming, immobility or aimless motion, trembling, frightened facial expressions and excessive clinging. Parents may also notice regressive behaviors, such as thumb-sucking, bedwetting, and fear of darkness. Children in this age bracket tend to be strongly affected by the parents' reactions to the traumatic event.
Children 6 to 11 years old may show extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior, or inability to pay attention. Regressive behaviors, nightmares, sleep problems, irrational fears, irritability, refusal to attend school, outbursts of anger and fighting are also common in traumatized children of this age. Also, the child may complain of stomachaches or other bodily symptoms that have no medical basis. Schoolwork often suffers. Depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt and emotional numbing are often present as well.
Dr. Shepherd recommends that the school ensure that protocols are in place for a child who is identified as having coping problems either through writing, artwork or class discussion.
If students are able to talk about the incident, they should be allowed time to talk and share feelings. They should not be allowed to leave the classroom alone or be left unattended or unsupervised.
The goal is to get back to routines as soon as possible after students have had an opportunity to express feelings. However, students most impacted must not go home to an empty home after school. Crisis team members should be made aware of those students so arrangements may be made.
The U.S. Department of Education offers emergency funding to schools such as Hidden Oaks Elementary School that have experienced a traumatic event of such magnitude as to severely disrupt the teaching and learning environment.
Under the "School Emergency Response to Violence" program, or Project SERV, schools or school districts may apply for two types of assistance. Immediate Services grants are intended to provide short-term support shortly after a traumatic event. These are intended to quickly provide about $50,000 to restore the learning environment in a timely fashion.
Extended Services grants are intended to address the long-term recovery efforts that may be needed following a traumatic event. Extended Services grants may provide up to $250,000 for up to 18 months to help maintain safety and security in an affected school and to help students, teachers, school staff and family members recover from the event.
There is no application deadline. Applications are funded on a continuous basis.
SchoolSAFE Communications, provider of public safety communications for school districts, offers additional free assistance to schools that have experienced a traumatic event. Under their Interoperable Communications Pilot Program, schools receive training and undergo exercises to improve coordination with professional responders in the community when responding to school incidents. The program supports the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the School Response Framework, which was first adopted this year in Colorado.
School Safety Partners is an all-volunteer organization that assists in drafting and implementing model school safety legislation, and promoting long-term school safety funding through public-private partnerships. Safe Havens International is a leading non-profit school safety center, providing training and resources to over 75,000 schools and response organizations around the world. School Safety Partners and Safe Havens International are not accepting donations related to Caylee Anthony or Orange County, Florida. However, they are working together to provide free assistance and resources to organizations interested in helping restore the Hidden Oaks Elementary School community.