Uvalde kids get help from 200 San Antonio counselors


Two weeks after the Uvalde shooting, the hall at Benson Elementary School was filled with stuffed animals, toys, coloring books, fidget spinners, kinetic sand and piles of snacks.

A sophomore — who was down the hall from the classroom at Robb Elementary School where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two teachers on May 24 — sat at a table running his hands through the sand.

He and his mother were with Kathy Johnson, a crisis intervention counselor with the Northeastern Independent School District, one of more than 200 school counselors from the greater San Antonio area who came to Uvalde to help.

On ExpressNews.com: Remembering the lives lost at Uvalde

“At this developmental age, in second grade, sometimes the way they process grief is to play with things on the table, and that’s great,” Johnson said.

She kept it light, knowing that the child needed time before he could talk about what he had been through. She asked him what his favorite flavor of ice cream was.

The influx of counselors to speak to students, parents and school staff affected by the tragedy is being coordinated by the Texas Education Agency’s Region 20 office, in conjunction with the nonprofit Communities in Schools.

For students who were at Robb Elementary that day, that usually means working on breathing exercises, self-regulation and getting them back to normal routines, said Chloe Palacios, spokeswoman for the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, an organization based in San Antonio. which has rented space in downtown Uvalde to continue providing services throughout the summer.

“Much of the work of grieving cannot be done until children can regulate their emotions. They might not have the ability to verbally express what’s going on,” she said.

Johnson focused on helping the mother of grade two deal with the new behaviors her son began exhibiting after the shooting. Every day around 11 a.m., he would get angry. He didn’t want to take showers. At night he didn’t want to go to bed – and if he slept, he woke up from nightmares.

“I told her it was OK to let him sleep in bed with her,” Johnson said. “He needs that extra security right now.”

Johnson said she emphasized how important routines are going to be — things as simple as going out and seeing friends, and even going back to school, which will trigger strong emotions at first.

“Keep loving him, being positive with him,” Johnson recalled telling his mother. “When he has those moments, it could be heartbreak.”

Give a hand

From left, Julie Magadance, ISD Northeast Response Advisor, leans on the shoulder of colleague Debbie Cheslock as she chats with fellow advisor Kathy Johnson at NEISD headquarters in San Antonio . The trio wear shirts created by Nicole Becker, school counselor at Morales Junior High in Uvalde for volunteers from 25 school districts and charters working with the disaster-stricken community.

Josie Norris, San Antonio Express-News/Staff Photographer

Shortly after the shooting, a counselor from the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District contacted the Area 20 Educational Services Center for help, said Tracy Reinen, the center’s mental health coordinator.

Since the Sutherland Springs shootings in 2017, the service center, whose South Texas region includes 56 school districts and 37 charter networks, has prepared designated teams of counselors ready to respond at any time when a school needs help for a tragic event.

“A lot of times when you have a traumatic event on campus, the people on campus are closest to it, and so it’s difficult for them to do all the paperwork and be able to provide support to staff, students and to families, when they are enough maybe going through that grieving process as well,” Reinen said.

Even with a plan in place, Reinen was amazed at the number of school districts that offered to help. So far, some 25 districts and charter schools have provided guidance to Uvalde.

“I hate to say it was easy, but it was easy because that’s exactly what school counselors do,” she said. “We know how difficult it is going to be and how difficult it is going to be, but this is what we are doing. We provide services. … The community was suffering and needed us.

This week, the Northside ISD Crisis Team trained Area 20 counselors on classroom orientation lessons designed to support the development of student skills so they can recognize and talk about grief and trauma, Reinen said.

Maria Spain, a school counselor at South San ISD, spent three days in Uvalde, much of it talking with parents and staff about survivor guilt and fear of the unknown.

Spain itself wrestled with the unknown of what each day would bring, wondering if it would be able to meet the needs of the community.

“I was just trying to mentally prepare myself, not knowing how it was going to be,” she said. “In the past, when I had to respond (to similar incidents), small communities tended to want to mourn together. And we were coming in as strangers, and so there’s this lack of trust there.

“It takes time for them to see that we are there to help them and to try to build that trust, but we don’t have a lot of time,” Spain said.

Once she arrived in Uvalde, she saw how families just needed a place where they could feel safe and be together.

“They weren’t really comfortable being at home. They weren’t really comfortable being at the memorial, not really knowing where to go,” Spain said. “So they gathered where everyone was. They gathered with familiar people.

The priority now is to ensure that Uvalde has continued services throughout the summer and into the fall.

“I’m very worried about August,” Johnson said. “When it calms down, that’s when the grief hits. There’s a lot of support right now, but August is when we can really help even more, because that’s when everyone goes back to school.

Susan Arciniega, health co-ordinator for Somerset ISD, who has volunteered at Uvalde, said the care needs to be long-term.

“Usually when things happen in the first few weeks, maybe even longer, you get all this support, but you don’t want to forget to check every single person,” she said.

At the same time, it’s important not to overwhelm the community and trample on their privacy, Arciniega said.

“You have to assess how much is too much and how much is not enough,” she said. “I think they can perfectly tell you that. You have to ask them: what do you need from us? »

About 50 counselors will continue to visit Uvalde over the next three weeks to provide classroom orientation to students at CISD Uvalde’s five campuses that hold summer schools, Reinen said.

Students who are not in summer school will be able to benefit from the services provided by the Children’s Bereavement Center, Reinen said.

Plans are underway for more counselors from as far away as Houston to assist Uvalde throughout the summer through Communities in Schools, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that has counselors embedded in most districts. schools in San Antonio.

“I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude, this level,” Johnson said. “It was heartbreaking to be there so close.”

“I can’t really describe it. It just makes it more real, not that it wasn’t real before, my heart just hurts,” Johnson said. “I’m still processing it today. I feel that connection with Uvalde now, just because when people share those kinds of stories, you just have a connection and a connection with them.

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