Close to Home: Healing schools need patience, support

A new school year is underway in Sonoma County, and with it comes an opportunity to celebrate fresh beginnings. Even with the joy and excitement this time of year brings, I encourage the community to be patient with our schools and children as they continue the hard but important work of healing from last October's wildfires.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students reminds us, “Children don't get over grief in a fixed period of time.” Sometimes the second year can be even more challenging than the first as difficult emotions persist, especially as expectations grow for children to “move on.” At the same time, support and resources often begin to dwindle. The anniversary of the wildfires could be a particularly difficult time for some children and their families.

The blazes that swept through Sonoma County destroyed the homes of roughly 1,450 public school students, several public and private schools and countless businesses where parents worked. Even if a child didn't lose her home, she could have suffered from the fires in myriad ways. Some children experienced extreme trauma, injury or loss and may need continued professional help dealing with these feelings. Others are feeling a sense of profound displacement as they move to new neighborhoods or change schools.

David Schonfeld, a nationally renowned expert in school crisis and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California, emphasized in a presentation to Sonoma County superintendents last winter that taking time in schools to help children adjust after a disaster is essential to promoting academic achievement. This includes training teachers, counselors and other school employees to recognize the signs of student grief and trauma, being flexible and creative with assignments and discipline, and much more.

That is why the Sonoma County Office of Education has been and will be focusing many of its fire-relief efforts on helping schools address trauma, grief, displacement and other long-term effects of the fire.

Since last October, Office of Education experts have led numerous crisis-response trainings for school counselors, psychologists and administrators, outlining how staff members can care for themselves as well as their students after a disaster.

The Office of Education is honored to have received $500,000 in grants to support sustained efforts to heal our schools. With this funding, we provided training to more than 60 school counselors and psychologists in cognitive behavioral intervention for trauma in schools this August and may conduct a second training later in the school year. The program is designed to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and behavioral problems in students while improving functioning, grades and attendance and peer and parent support.

With these funds, we also expanded support for restorative practices in local schools. As well, the Office of Education has provided mini-grants to some of the most impacted school districts to support expanded counseling and mental health services.

I am grateful to school employees who worked tirelessly during and after the fires, sometimes in the face of incredible personal loss, to help children. The commitment of our local educators to the children they serve has never been more clear. You can learn more about their incredible contributions in this year's Spotlight on Sonoma County Schools publication, available as an insert in The Press Democrat on Sunday or online at

Steven D. Herrington is Sonoma County superintendent of schools.

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