One child was killed and twelve others were injured in 1984 when a sniper opened fire on students at 49th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. Medical professionals were at the scene immediately to take care of the physical wounds, but no one at the Los Angeles Unified School District had a plan for dealing with the psychological aftermath.
Now, after the deaths of five students involving six schools in the San Fernando Valley, the district's psychological services crisis team is being applauded by parents, teachers and administrators for its quick reaction and support.
"After the crisis at 49th Street School, we found we were very ill-equipped to deal with the psychological problems that accompany such an incident," said Dr. Loeb Aronin, supervisor of the school district's psychological services. "Now, we're ready for that kind of thing. We proved it this past week."
In the last two weeks of March, psychological crisis teams were sent to two elementary schools, two junior highs and two high schools in the San Fernando Valley to identify children who are unable to cope with grief, talk with them in small groups and give them simple but accurate information about the incidents.
Aronin said that the system, which includes a crisis team for each school in the district, has been tested in the past few weeks, with so many schools in need of crisis intervention.
"I am starting to feel very comfortable that we've taken the best strategies possible and have them in place for this kind of thing," Aronin said. "It is calming for everyone--teachers and students--just to know there is a system and someone has a plan."
On March 23, third-grader Paul Bailly was abducted outside Darby Avenue Elementary School and later found burned to death in a field near Simi Valley. A 21-year-old former day-care worker at the school has been charged with murder, kidnaping and arson in connection with the slaying.
Students were encouraged by psychologists to draw pictures of Paul as they remembered him, and to write letters to his mother. During a March 28 church service, the students recalled their friendships with Paul. Last Friday, the students planted a tree on campus after psychologists suggested such a ceremony would help finalize the ordeal.
"Many children have drawn pictures and written letters and I believe it is helping them cope with his death," said Darby School Principal Sydney Yukelson. "And after we planted the tree, we were able to look forward to Monday with the kind of attitude that life goes on, even if we have suffered a great loss."
On March 20, a Reseda woman committed suicide after killing her three children. The oldest child, 16-year-old Brandy Fernandez, was a popular student at Cleveland High School. Her sister, Leticia Fernandez, 13, had attended both Sutter and Parkman junior highs. And their 7-year-old half-brother Jeremiah Jones attended Blythe Street Elementary School.
At Blythe Street Elementary School, psychologists met with teachers and with Principal Maureen Banks on the morning after the shooting victims were found. The teachers agreed to tell each class individually about what had happened before instruction began. The younger children were most affected because they knew Jeremiah, and several children were sent to the school library, where they met in small groups with a psychologist, Banks said.
"It was a great feeling of relief to know that I wasn't left alone to deal with the kind of tragedy I'd never dealt with before," Banks said. "Then, a week after the incident, several children began showing a severe reaction to Jeremiah's death."
Psychologists had alerted Banks and teachers at Blythe Street School that after the death of a classmate, students seriously affected will cry more easily, act up in class, exhibit a sudden fear of leaving the classroom, or become withdrawn. Banks noticed a variety of these reactions in a small group of children.
"I called psychological services and they sent someone down to our school right away," she said. "It is a wonderful system and it works perfectly in this kind of tragedy."
Psychologists were able to come to the school the day Banks called and meet with each troubled child individually. The children will meet in a group with the psychologist once a week until the children can deal with the loss on their own, Aronin said.
On March 24, Ryan Vela, 17, an outfielder on the Sylmar High School baseball team, was killed when he was driving home with two teammates and the car they were riding in was broadsided by a Los Angeles police car. The cause of the accident early that Saturday morning is still under investigation.
"We knew we would need several psychologists to talk to the kids because Ryan was a popular boy involved in school activities," Aronin said. "We were notified by Sylmar High School administrators and we had a crisis team ready to be there Monday morning."