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Fairfax County, Virginia

By Cindy Dickinson

As I began my workday on 9/11, I was driving to a routine meeting. In August, I had become the coordinator of crisis and attendance services for the Fairfax County (VA) Department of Special Services. Fairfax County is located in the Washington, DC suburbs. The weather was beautiful: I was listening to my favorite classical music station; and the news of the day's events began to break in to the broadcast. According to the reports, several planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York; a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, merely nine miles away from me; and, possibly, another was headed toward Washington, DC, less than 10 miles from some of our schools. Washington is the place where friends, neighbors, and many Fairfax County parents work. The World Trade Center had experienced horrific damage, with thousands affected. The Pentagon, symbolic of our national defense, thought impenetrable, had its very physical boundaries invaded, resulting in deaths, injuries, and damage. The White House and U.S. Capitol, symbols of our government, remained vulnerable to the terrorists' attacks. Washington itself was in chaos while these events unfolded.

One of my first calls for assistance came from our military base elementary school, trying to handle parent “checkout,” for which the lines had become long. (See “Margaret Moore and Fort Belvoir Elementary School” on page 23.) Other schools had called our communications office for guidance: Would schools remain open? How could we make sense of what happened and move forward?

Working as Part of a Large Team Early in the Process of Crisis Response

Because I was working with a large team, I was able to confer with our school system's communications office, the safety and security office, and the superintendent's offices to make decisions about keeping school open on September 11. Our essential communications included messages to parents that schools would remain open and that their children were safe. To prevent overexposure to media coverage of the day's events, we urged teachers to turn off all TVs, and encouraged parents to minimize media exposure. At the time, student cell phone usage was not permitted in school: However, on 9/11, students used those phones to call parents, connect their friends to parents, and to receive reassurance.

We needed to assess impact, including our proximity to the event(s) and, specifically, the level of impact on students, families, and the school community. By day's end, we debriefed “how things were going” and what needed to happen next. Our schools closed the next day. We needed to promote safety, security, and a sense of hope in a community that had been traumatized, but needed to feel safe and secure ourselves. Our school mental health professionals needed guidance and information to share with their schools, so information briefings were scheduled. We launched an extensive, collaborative effort to address issues that arose in the aftermath, from media coverage to work with Muslim parents, to liaison work with community mental health partners regarding needed trauma work. Regular briefings and debriefings became the norm. We had extensive work ahead of us.

Immediate Responses

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 events, our school system was able to release American Red Cross disaster mental health workers, first responders, and other disaster- trained volunteers to offer their services at the Pentagon. Some of those Red Cross volunteers later worked with families affected by the loss of family members at the Pentagon. We also collaborated with NASP to translate a few of their key resources into six languages, which we used in the school district and NASP distributed to schools throughout the country. Having vital resources available was essential to our first phase of intervention, including parent and teacher education.

MidRange Responses

There were significant needs for communications to students and families, teachers, and administrators regarding coping after a traumatic event, posttraumatic stress, and support for survivors. We were able to leverage community-based counseling for local families affected by losses at the Pentagon and World Trade Center. We shared “lessons learned” on radio stations and a local public television station. We highlighted best practices to use learning tools, including classroom journals, to enable students to share their stories. We utilized NASP and other professional organization handouts to help educate parents and teachers about effective coping. Our story of “how we addressed the events of 9/11” became part of congressional testimony as part of NASP's advocacy on behalf of increased funding for school crisis and mental health programming. We accessed federal funds to provide trauma-focused intervention training for school mental health professionals. We encouraged our school community members to reach out to each other and to those most affected by the tragic events. While I was able to count on support from professional colleagues who had experienced traumatic events in their school communities, I found that I had, indeed, learned many lessons. My journey took me in a new direction: to ensure that training efforts and lessons learned focused our local crisis teams on effective practices.

Long-Term Responses

Thankfully, most members of our school community adjusted to the “new normal” in the Washington area. The grant-funded trauma work offered by the community mental health team to the 9/11 survivors lasted a year. Our school mental health professionals needed training, and we explored the National Organization for Victims Assistance and Critical Incident Stress Management models. Neither related to school system and school community needs. Later, I became an active member of the NASP Crisis Prevention and Intervention Workgroup, whose major project was the PREPaRE curriculum; a PREPaRE trainer; and a member of the National Emergency Assistance Team, the crisis intervention advocacy committee for NASP.

At this 10th anniversary of our nation's tragic losses, let us continue to work for peace.

Cindy Dickinson, NCSP, is manager of crisis intervention and dropout prevention for Fairfax County Public Schools. She is a member of the National Emergency Assistance Team and a liaison to the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Partners.