Crisis expert shares knowledge with Mukilteo

By Brandon Gustafson | Apr 11, 2018

With school shootings and other violent crimes dominating headlines across the country, many Mukilteo parents and residents have voiced concerns about dealing with traumatic events.

Mukilteo had its own series of emotional crises, with multiple student suicides as well as the July 2016 shooting in a rather short timeframe.

The Mukilteo School District heard those concerns and solicited the help of an old friend, Dr. David Schonfeld.

Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California, spent two days with the Mukilteo School District, giving presentations to school district staff members, and also led a public presentation on Thursday, April 5, at Kamiak High School.

Mukilteo School District Superintendent Marci Larsen was in attendance, as well as School Board President John Gahagan, School Board Member Judy Schwab, Mukilteo City Councilmember Richard Emery, and Mukilteo Police Chief Cheol Kang along with two other Mukilteo police officers.

“We are fortunate to have a return visit from Dr. David Schonfeld,” Larsen said. “Dr. Schonfeld is one of the nation’s leading experts in supporting schools, students, staff, and family members in times of crisis and loss.

“In addition to working with our Kamiak community in past years, he has also helped our neighbors in Marysville and has worked with communities in the wake of shootings in Florida, Connecticut, Las Vegas, and many other areas.”

Schonfeld’s relationship with the Mukilteo community started in 2016.

“Two years ago, I didn’t know who Dr. Schonfeld was, and I sure couldn’t spell his last name,” Kamiak principal Mike Gallagher said. “We had a shooting right here … and I remember on a Saturday morning getting that call and coming up here to Mukilteo and spending the day here.”

Gallagher recalled spending the day with staff at the memorial for the shooting victims, and the following Monday addressing his administrative staff.

“It was still August, school wasn’t open yet, and my admin team came in, and I looked at them and said ‘We need to do something different. We have to throw out all old plans we have set for August and our teacher training, and we have to do something different,’” Gallagher said.

Gallagher said he contacted Liza Patchen-Short, Emery’s wife, who told him to contact Schonfeld.

“It was a late night, and I called him and lo and behold, he answered,” Gallagher said. “So I told him, ‘I’m Mike Gallagher, principal of Kamiak, and here’s what’s happening in Mukilteo. Can you come help us?’

“And he began to share a little bit about himself and his resume … and I said, ‘I need to know, can you be here Aug. 24?’ And he said, ‘I’ll be there.’ And he stuck to his word, and he spent five days up here.”

Gallagher said the course of Kamiak and the Mukilteo community changed after Schonfeld’s visit.

After the Parkland, Florida, shooting, parents and citizens emailed Gallagher about doing something regarding safety and school shootings, and they reached out to Schonfeld about returning to Mukilteo.

“Once he comes, he builds a relationship with that community, and I know we’re going to invite you back again,” Gallagher said.

Schonfeld spoke about supporting students after a disaster, symptoms of adjustment reactions, timeline for adjustment, and adult self-care, which he said is underrated after traumatic events involving younger people occur.

“If the adults are not functioning well, they can’t support the kids,” Schonfeld said.

Schonfeld said he was recently at a school where a shooting occurred, and was talking to the school’s staff during their first day back at the school since the incident, and the staff were visibly stressed.

“I looked at them and said, ‘We’re asking the kids to show up and be in the school. We’re not expecting them to learn much right now, we just want them to be present, but we’re asking the teachers to show up on time, stay for the entire day, and tend to the needs of 30 children at a time and learn new skills on how to support them, then go home and help your community heal,’” Schonfeld said.

“I told them, ‘That is a lot to ask, so I’m not going to place any expectation on you to be a therapist or a counselor, or start to understand trauma and detail,’ because that’s just not realistic.”

Schonfeld started with psychological first aid, which he said is typically administered to somebody you don’t know, and it’s population-based.

“You provide that service to everyone, and what you’re trying to do is just provide supportive services to foster natural healing and accelerate the natural process of recovery,” Schonfeld said. “The point I’d like to make is all staff who are in a position to support kids can help them in a crisis situation, but if they are not capable, uninterested, they’re ill-informed, they will be perceived to be insensitive, and they can actually add to the distress that the children have.”

Schonfeld said some actions to help with psychological first aid include being aware, helping others feel comfortable, assisting with basic needs, and, most importantly, listening.

“It’s not so much what you say, it’s if you listen,” Schonfeld said. “You really want to let the kid know that you’re listening to them, and if you don’t understand what it is that they’re seeking or concerned about, you need to ask them and let them explain it to you.”

Schonfeld said some symptoms of adjustment reactions to traumatic events include trouble sleeping, increased anxiety, depression, deterioration in academic performance, and guilt.

Schonfeld said some schools have handled coursework differently in the wake of traumatic events. He said he visited one school where they had each class effectively act as a special education class, and only taught one or two concepts in an entire class session.

Schonfeld said some teachers who taught higher level classes, such as AP classes, asked how they were going to fit all the coursework and lessons into a short amount of time.

“My reaction to them is, ‘You won’t. It’s not realistic. Figure out the foundational skills the kids need for next year,’” Schonfeld said. “If they don’t pass the AP exam, but they learned to cope with a major disaster, they gained a life skill that’s much more important than an extra credit when they get to college.”

Schonfeld said some people may be quick to believe that they have post-traumatic stress disorder after being involved in traumatic and distressing events, but they’re most likely having the same reactions as others.

Schonfeld said if some continue to re-experience the event, avoid any stimuli associated with the trauma suffered, have increased negative moods, and have increased arousal with things like anger and being startled, and if those symptoms are present for longer than 30 days, then someone may actually be suffering from PTSD, but they have to meet those requirements.

Schonfeld gave a timeline for how people adjust over time to events, and said support needs to be there from teachers and family members until kids return to their “baseline functioning” or their emotional state before the traumatic event occurred.

“If you withdraw the support too soon and say, ‘The kids are better,’ they’re not better,” Schonfeld said. “They’re not sobbing or screaming anymore, but they’re not better, and if you withdraw that support too soon, then that’s their new baseline.”

One audience member, a father of Mukilteo students, said he has been having trouble dropping his kids off at school in the morning and having to hope he sees them again after school, as well as what he sees as “complacency” from some parents as the attendance at Schonfeld’s presentation wasn’t very high. He also asked Schonfeld if he felt things are changing.

Schonfeld said he is seeing more change from younger people, such as the students from Parkland, Florida.

“I was at the March (March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.) and there were kids from Parkland, but there were kids from all over, and there were adults from all over the country,” Schonfeld said. “I think they’re tapping into a lot of the frustration among the people, and we’re hearing more about investing in mental health and providing support. So I truly hope it will change, but I’m not expecting to see dramatic results very quickly.”

Schonfeld closed the presentation by saying working with others after stressful events is important, citing how he works in pairs when he responds to traumatic events, and said people dealing with these events should work together as well, and also should not be afraid to seek outside help or counseling.

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