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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AND THE PERSIAN GULF CRISIS : A Plan to Help Kids Cope--Just in Case : Military and school officials in Irvine have formed a communications network to exchange information and address the emotional needs of anxious--or grieving--students.

January 11, 1991|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — To help students cope if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf, Marine Corps officials and Irvine school principals and psychologists set up a contingency plan Thursday to exchange information about deaths, injuries and rumors.

"We have to prepare ourselves as if we're going to war," said Dan Graham, principal of El Toro Marine School, an Irvine Unified School District elementary school with a large number of military children. "We can't assume we're not going to war. We'd like to think last-minute things happen, and we hope they do. If they don't, we are prepared to assist our families."

In addition, he said, crisis teams of psychologists--similar to those used at high schools for sudden deaths--are being formed in the district, which has a significant number of military dependents. The teams would be on call to individual principals depending on the need, he said.

"We hope we're not talking about casualties," said Col. Paul Johnston, commander of the Marine Corps Air Station at Tustin. "It's a contingency plan that is probably in everyone's best interests."

"We hope we never have to use it," Johnston said. "Obviously, these situations have to be discussed."

Under the contingency plan, the base would call the schools after notifying next of kin in the event of injury or death.

Bruce Givner, deputy superintendent of Irvine Unified School District, called phone communications with El Toro Marine Corps Air Station "critical" in order to help children who act up in school as a result of a relative's death, injury or of rumors.

In the event of war and heavy casualties, a child without an injured parent might claim he has one and begin to exhibit anxieties identical to those who are truly affected, Graham said.

Teachers and psychologists would handle the two situations quite differently. With accurate information, they would know what response is appropriate, he said.

Thursday's meeting was the third in a series of unprecedented war-related sessions between school and military officials, initiated by educators, and was not related to breakdowns in negotiations this week between the United States and Iraq, Marine officials said.

However, school officials and psychologists said the anxieties of dependents have been rising steadily since the United Nations set Jan. 15 as a deadline for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait. At the same time, the deadline has provided a unique opportunity for cooperation between the schools and the military.

"There's never been anything like this, a day that stands out as a day we might go to war," said Bruce Webster, a Newport Beach psychologist with a large military clientele who will be consulting next week with teachers at the El Toro Marine School. "We're used to coping with events after we are overtaken by them.

"To have a deadline makes everyone just that much more anxious."

Ironically, Webster said, the breakdown in talks between the two countries lessens the anxiety for some people who have felt ambivalent.

"When you have no alternatives except to go forward, there's a sense of almost relief, although nobody wants to go to war," he said.

While much attention is being focused on the base children, he said, tensions are even higher for children of parents in reserve units because they were called up so abruptly. Young brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews also are affected, therapists said.

Some children with relatives in the gulf can't sleep, are sick to their stomachs and refuse to go to school. Some have nightmares of the world disintegrating, therapists said.

On the other hand, in some cases, adult anxieties are "contaminating" children's attitudes, Webster said. He said one wife of a military man deployed in the gulf complained that her child wouldn't get out of her bed at night.

"After I scratched the surface, I found the mother became paranoid of intruders the minute her husband left. She closed the windows with double drapes. She had the kid come to bed with her for her own security, and it essentially backfired.

"Now the kid wants to know why he's being sent back to his room when he was brought in for the mother's security.

"She started the ball rolling, and now you've got two anxious people in the home."

Among Webster's advice to teachers will be not to confuse their own anxieties with those of the children.

More O.C. COVERAGE: A1,A34

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