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California and the West

Aftermath of Santee School Shootings Becomes a Testing Time for Counselors

Healing: Many have donated their services, but find rewards in bringing back smiles.

March 20, 2001|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTEE, Calif. — All day long, the question lurked in Nancy North's mind.

There it was at 8 a.m., as the sun peeked over the scrubby green hills and she parked her car outside Santana High School, where two days earlier a student had shot two classmates to death.

The question popped up again that afternoon as she told sobbing 15-year-olds that, yes, it was normal to lie awake in bed, flashing back to bullets ricocheting off classroom doors. It was OK to cry and cry and cry.

This was her question: "How could I ever even begin to help them get over this?"

North was not the only one wondering. The question confronted more than 200 therapists--many of them, like North, volunteers--who streamed into Santee from across the country the day after Charles "Andy" Williams came to school with a gun in his yellow backpack.

The question is also being asked by mental health experts nationwide, some of whom say the influx of counselors after disasters is useless, a ritual gesture emblematic of a therapeutic culture.

"Sometimes grief counselors do more harm than good," said Sally Satel, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Satel, who published articles blasting the "grief industry" after the Columbine school massacre, said that for some students, talking about painful experiences can make things worse. But much research shows that early intervention after a trauma can prevent or lessen the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder.

So in Santee, the aim was to get students talking to each other as soon as possible. The response by therapists was unusually quick, partly because the Grossmont Union School District had updated its crisis plan just six weeks earlier.

Counselors used an intervention method developed for firefighters who witness unspeakable horrors. The first week after the March 5 killings, there was one therapist for every 10 students, a counselor in every classroom, and others stationed outside the boy's bathroom where the shooting started.

Guidance counselors pored over student files, tagging those of the ones who had attempted suicide. Those who have had substance abuse problems remain on close watch. District officials even had a portable classroom towed onto campus, where students could go for extra help. About 35 counselors remain on campus.

"It's like a mental health MASH unit," said David Moore, a San Diego psychologist. "For 95% of the people who were there, it will be the most traumatic experience they will have in their lifetime. . . . We don't even pretend that these kids and their families will ever return to what is normal."

So students were gathered into groups and presented a series of questions: How did you feel when you knew someone was hurt or even killed? What did you do? How has your life changed?

The counselors hoped that by answering these questions, students would build a "therapeutic community" and learn to rely on each other as they grieved.

At first, such questions seemed "silly" to Misty Bonds, who attended the sessions on her first day back at school.

The 16-year-old junior had a backpack full of CDs that had been cracked by bullets. Nightmares propelled her into her mother's bed in the wee hours of almost every new day. Her first afternoon back at school, she called her mother in a panic after students learned of e-mail threats to finish what Williams allegedly had started.

How, Bonds wondered, could questions like "Where were you when the shots rang out?" possibly make her feel better?

But six days later, after yet another nightmare and a morning spent curled up on her mother's pillows watching cartoons and eating pizza, Bonds had decided that, maybe, the counseling at school was making things easier. "Groups don't usually talk to each other," she said. But now they were.

The counselors have come from all over, including the Red Cross, the San Diego County departments of education and mental health, and the U.S. Department of Education. Counselors in private practice answered urgent pages or, like Nancy North, called and volunteered. Some flew into town, but most live near San Diego.

Before counselors were allowed to see any students, district officials evaluated their credentials. You can't be too careful, said Loretta Middleton of the San Diego County Office of Education.

After another school shooting a few years ago, a Tarot card reader showed up and offered her services, said Cheri Lovre, a nationally recognized trauma expert.

Across their lapels, right below their name tags, the counselors affixed bright shiny dots, connoting their specialties so panicked teenagers could find someone suited to their needs.

And within a day, the therapists, like the athletes and the cheerleaders, had formed their own campus clique: "We're the dot people," said Moore, who gave up two weeks of income from his private practice to volunteer in Santee.

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