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Students with trauma: How one middle school is coping after Hurricane Matthew

Teachers, students, and other Edgecombe County residents all had a common refrain when asked about heavy rainfall in April that led to school being canceled for the first time since Hurricane Matthew. They were scared. They were worried that the river would rise again sweeping away the small vestiges of progress that had unfolded.

This is not a typical response to rainfall, but life has not been typical for residents of Edgecombe County since Hurricane Matthew hit last October.

I recently visited Edgecombe County to observe life post-Matthew. As we walked the hallways of local schools and caught up with people on Main Street, resident after resident described the continued circumstance of life after Matthew, including residual feelings of fear they feel to this day each time a heavy rain happens.

Matthew lashed the town with strong winds and driving rain during the storm, but the true damage came in the days that followed. The river continued to rise until it swamped the community’s defenses, many that were put in place after Hurricane Floyd devastated the area in 1999.

Pattillo Middle School in Tarboro, North Carolina was not damaged by the storm, but many students and faculty members were affected.

Edgecombe County Schools Superintendent John Farrelly spoke of the remarkable leadership of Pattillo Principal Lauren Lampron and her staff who worked tirelessly to safeguard the school while also working overtime to help area shelters, check in on students, and simply do what needed to get done — even when it required working around the clock.

Lampron deflects praise for her work, making it clear it was a team effort.

The clean-up work was just beginning of the challenges brought on by Matthews. School staff must now address trauma in the students.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea

Research into Adverse Childhood Experiences explores the role of trauma, stress, and toxic stress in children

Lampron explored the reality of trauma in the lives of Pattillo Middle School students post-Matthew:

The experience of Pattillo students could give insights into ways trauma should be addressed in other schools.

First, trauma manifests at different times in different ways with different students. Lampron believed male students at Pattillo showed signs of stress first, while the stress manifested itself in female students as the year went along. Research indicates individuals may have very differing reactions to trauma and toxic stress. Each individual’s resilience is determined by a range of background factors including familial support, community support, and more. Lampron’s staff have developed collective action, but she articulated an understanding of the individualized reactions as well.

Second, trauma may prompt poor behavior and school staff will need to adjust their responses accordingly. Lampron’s staff changed the way they responded to students who were misbehaving. Instead of a challenging question such as, “Why are you doing that?” they asked, “What is going on with you?”

The staff had to reconcile themselves to the reality that some students were sleeping in hotel rooms as opposed to their home, or that relatives they treasured might have been forced to move away, or that their friends may have been uprooted.

When students are worried about rainfall, it creates a different kind of school environment.

Third, Pattillo Middle adapted their daily environments to the needs of the students experiencing trauma. They offered additional opportunities for physical exercise such as kickball, while also looking for other opportunities to get students outside.

Lampron believes that more educators need to be trained on ACEs because her staff was not fully prepared for what happened in October or in the months since the hurricane.

Advanced training would allow staff to understand the short-term adverse impacts of disasters and the greater context of the lives of students who face trauma and stress at home.

Academic work on ACEs often takes place in school counselor programs at Colleges of Education, if it exists at all. If Lampron’s view were the default mindset, ACEs training would integrated across all areas of preparation for educators.

Last fall, the Public School Forum convened Study Group XVI to examine a number of critical issues including trauma in learning. (Full disclosure: I was the co-chair of the trauma in learning sub-committee).

The Study Group called for the design of “on-ramps” for educators to raise awareness of the ACEs and their impact on students. The on-ramps included an array of options including convenings put together by the Department of Public Instruction, individual districts, and even external partners. The linchpin of the recommendation was to create opportunities for experienced educators to learn and to share resources, while also creating alignment between the convenings and training programs.

The long-term goal is to build educational environments and community resiliency models that build support before disaster strikes, while also creating compassionate schools that understand the daily stress students face in their home lives.

The students of Pattillo Middle saw their teachers remarkable reactions when the storms hit. In the months that followed, they have seen their teachers attempt to react to the daily traumas that remain behind. While they made great efforts, much of the response has been guided by intuition and experience rather than trainings or models.

If North Carolina leaders want to heed the lessons of Edgecombe County post-Matthew, then they must create avenues for training and preparing those on the front lines of combatting trauma and building resilience.


Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.