In the weeks after the Camp Fire hit, school psychologists Roy Applegate and Scott Lindstrom knew the trauma caused by the disaster would affect the emotional and social well-being of students, teachers and staff across Butte County. What they weren’t prepared to deal with was the scope of the aftereffects.
Applegate, who worked for the Paradise Unified School District for over 20 years and went on to oversee the special education programs in Butte and Glenn counties, and Lindstrom, who worked at Chico Unified School District for 30 years developing counseling and guidance programs, walked out of meetings with teachers and staff following the fire asking, “What’s going on?”
Teachers recounted escaping the flames with children in their cars or on buses, believing with conviction that they were bound for death. Thousands of homes were destroyed, upending tens of thousands of lives. Students were suddenly displaced, and it was unknown whether they would return.
“We’re school psychologists by training, and, having done lots of crisis response over the years, this has been just like nothing else I ever experienced,” Lindstrom told the CN&R. “The feds have said the only comparables are like ….”
“Katrina,” Applegate said.
“Hurricane Katrina, basically,” Lindstrom finished.
Over the past seven months, Applegate and Lindstrom have coordinated post-Camp Fire trauma response and recovery efforts for the Butte County Office of Education (BCOE). They’ve facilitated the placement of counselors who have worked at schools for varying amounts of time, as well as trainings and other outreach activities. In June, BCOE was awarded a $1.6 million grant through the Butte Strong Fund, which is managed by the North Valley Community Foundation, to continue trauma response initiatives through the next school year.
The grant, the coordinators said, will support the hiring and placement of about 25 to 30 “fire recovery” counselors—most of whom will work part-time—whose focus will be on students and staff displaced by the fire at public, private and charter schools. The grant will pay for a parent-facilitator position whose work will inform families about trauma and coordinate outreach activities. The grant also will pay for a program evaluator, as well as a grant developer, who will pursue funding to support long-term mental health services at Butte County schools.
The goal is to address the immediate mental health needs of students and staff, shortening the time from when people realize they need help to receiving it, the coordinators said. The fire recovery services supported by the grant, they said, overlap with a broader initiative at BCOE, which had identified problems associated with trauma and mental health at schools even before the fire. It’s hoped the work being done now will pave the way for individual school districts to prioritize funding for mental health services.
In the months following the fire, trauma has shown itself in myriad forms. Stress. Anxiety. Loss of sleep. Memory problems. Trouble completing tasks. Anger and aggression. Withdrawal and isolation. The list goes on, the coordinators said, and the reasons behind the symptoms can include long commutes to and from schools, families that have been separated because of a lack of housing options and stress caused by moving in with relatives or friends.
Then there are the more unpredictable trauma-related circumstances.
In one case, the coordinators said, a school counselor reported concerns about a child who had suffered a series of dog bites. The bites were so bad they broke the child’s arm. It turned out the child was attacked by the family dog, which was being protective of the child’s mom. A veterinarian later confirmed that the dog had suffered trauma by living with another dog it was unfamiliar with. The animal’s stress likely came into play, and the veterinarian was invited to present a safety lesson for children at the school.
It’s incidents like those, Applegate said, that “I would never even have thought in my wildest dreams that could be an issue.”
Treatment at schools will vary from person to person, and the goal is to provide stable, short-term outreach, Lindstrom said. Counseling for children could mean engaging for a short period on the playground or in lines for buses and food. Other students and staff could receive more traditional counseling sessions.
For those in need of more serious intervention—such as to address intense post-traumatic stress—counselors are encouraged to refer people to outside experts who are better equipped to provide treatment.
There are still questions regarding just how many students will return to schools most affected by the fire. Campuses in Paradise will be reconfigured, Applegate said. What was once two elementary schools will be one. The high school and intermediate school will share a campus. Before the fire, Paradise Unified School District served about 3,600 students. It’s projected about 1,200 to 1,500 students will return.
“Schools are going to look really different up there,” Applegate said. “Really different.”
Lindstrom holds the view that trauma and recovery initiatives introduced following the fire could change the way agencies across the county work with one another, resulting in a transformation that would mean better collaboration.
“We have to be transformed whether we like it or not,” Lindstrom said. “Our county will never look the same as it did before Nov. 8, so our hope is to be kind of facilitators of a positive transformation that includes more services, better linkages across service providers and better access.”